Friday, January 15, 2010

Albums of the past decade: 2003

A year of disappointments and surprises...

Erykah Badu — Worldwide Underground

Wow, this album was stopgap. It was advertised as an EP upon its release, but that was total bullshit, as it was over 50 minutes in length. Pseudo-hip hop ramblings ("Danger" and "Love of My Life Worldwide"), obvious and superfluous covers (Donald Byrd's "Think Twice") and just plain uninspired material ("Woo" was just dumb). It was all the more disappointing because it started out with three of her best pop soul songs in the vein of Baduizm ("Bump It", "Back In The Day" and "I Want You"). The whole thing wreaked of releasing something only because the label wanted it. I was pissed. I've mellowed out since then, but it's still her worst album.

Beulah — Yoko

And then there was this album. I didn't get it at all at first. However, it should be said that, while the music created here was definitely created by the band Beulah, this is basically Miles Kurosky's version of Blood on the Tracks. The songs are all written in bittersweet retrospect and it makes sense that none of them will sound immediately good. However, listen to this album four or five times and it will become more and more like a masterpiece. One of the single most downtrodden, but simultaneously uplifting albums I can think of. I have a hard time talking about this album because it helped me exorcise my own past relationship demons, but just know that where Beulah was known for the melancholy twee in the past, this is the album where they grow up and make that mature pop masterstroke full of timeless melodies and resonating themes — the album that you always hope the underdog will make. Highlights for me: "A Man Like Me", "Me & Jesus Don't Talk Anymore", "You're Only King Once" and "Wipe Those Prints and Run." Was able to see their last show ever on the west coast (their official last show ever was a free show a few weeks later in NYC) and it was three hours of absolute soul wrenching, demon exorcising rock and roll magic. Miles played my request, half-drunkenly shouted from the balcony of the Fillmore in the second encore. Within about six months, the band released a semi-official full version of all the demos for the album through their website which is just as worthwhile as the proper album. Listening now, it just gives me chills thinking of Miles sitting in front of his four track strumming out a song like "Landslide Baby." And, just in case you were wondering, with this album, they did make that mature pop masterstroke. And then, like the smartest of bands, they broke up. Leaving it up to the world at large to figure it out for themselves. Easily one of my picks for best of the decade. Absolutely magnificent.

Cherrywine — Bright Black

Fuck this album. Just... fuck it. How can you be Butterfly from Digable FUCKING Planets and make something this terrible? I cried. Literally. It made me fucking cry. That's how bad it is. Making sub-par synth-hop and coked out of his mind, Butterfly permanently lost my respect over this album. Blowout Comb now doesn't sound as good because of this atrocity. Fuck.

Common — Electric Circus

Over the years, it's become a little less satisfying then that initial 'HOLY GOD AND MOTHER OF JESUS, THIS IS THE SPACED OUT FONK' reaction I had, but it still strikes as a brave and profound work that showcases an artistic collective at their most experimental. Common was at his most lyrically sharp since Resurrection and Questlove and J Dilla created some of their best work for the musical backdrops here. Any hip hop album that has the following can't be all bad: a song dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, an interlude featuring a short song created on the same machine that created "When Doves Cry", a featured vocal by a member of Stereolab and a cameo by Prince himself. Wonderfully weird and unjustly understood is how I would sum this one up. At the time, it only solidified that Com was the greatest to ever pick up a mic.

Death Cab For Cutie — Transatlanticism

This album struck me so hard upon first listen that the only thing I could do was play it again. I literally had to play it again to make sure what I had just heard was as good as I was estimating. And it was. It was a rebirth and regeneration. I think back on it and I still can't believe how solid it is. I truly believe the strength of the album has just as much to do with the sequencing as it does the material. I have to mention the track "We Looked Like Giants" because it is the band's best song. Even now, I still hold that opinion. It is a singular and poignant document of passionate young love; a time when feelings are the strongest many of us will experience, but equally as innocent and unachievable as we grow older. Wonderful. At that point, it was Death Cab at their most ambitious and the album, as a whole, was an absolute triumph. Still their best album.

The Durutti Column — Someone Else's Party

And here's where Austin becomes a Durutti obsessionist. Before this album, they were a curiosity. After I heard it, I was a devotee. I can now recognize it as the Column's most approachable work in some time, with guitar pop gems like "Love is a Friend", "Somewhere" and "Remember" sitting alongside guitar and sampled vocal specialties like "Spanish Lament", "Woman" and "Blue." There was an overhanging sadness to the album with two pieces being dedicated to Vini's recently deceased mother (the self-explanatory "Requiem For My Mother" and the poignant guitar instrumental "Goodbye"). Even with that (or maybe even because of it), the album stands up as one of Vini's better ones of his later career. Little did I know, he would only get better.

Kristin Hersh — The Grotto

Speaking of downers... A meditative, stream of conscious all acoustic album from Kristin after two full on pop albums. To say it was a jarring contrast would be an understatement. It still has that foggy, surrealist and eerie feel of her best folk-slanted material and it's a very singularly-mooded album for that. It builds and builds to the last two tracks ("Milk Street" and "Ether") into one of the emotional highlights of her catalogue. It featured Howe Gelb and Andrew Bird, who both subsequently toured with her as opening acts in support of the album. It was through my attendance at that show that I found their music as well. A real late night gem of an album for me.

Ahmad Jamal — In Search of Momentum

The first Ahmad Jamal album of late that clued me in that he was experiencing a resurgence in creativity. I saw the trio on this tour and they were absolutely smoking. Didn't really play anything off this album (but a rare airing of "Spanish Lament" from an obscure 70's album was definitely appreciated), but the same energy was there. As this album stands, it featured quite a few originals for Ahmad at the time and, as good and resonating as those melodies were, this was only the foundation on which he would build in the next few years.

Madlib — Shades of Blue

Basically living out any beathead's dreams, Madlib was granted access to Blue Note's masters and given free reign to sample, add to and tweak as he saw fit. Probably one of the first proper 'remix' albums of the decade, in that sense. Fantastic new takes on breakbeat classics from Bobbi Humphrey ("Please Set Me At Ease") to Donald Byrd ("Steppin Into Tomorrow") to Ronnie Foster (the crowd pleaser, "Mystic Brew"). Sure, as a beathead myself, I knew most of the source material very well, but it was still an out and out success because of Madlib's takes on these classics. Something to be said about that.

Natalie Merchant — The House Carpenter's Daughter

Proof that Motherland's turn into the rootsy, bluesy twang wasn't just an aside. All cover tunes, so not quite as satisfying as that album, but it still does a nice job of blending the acoustic and electric into a believable brew of modern day roots music. Probably my least favorite of her albums thus far, but an interesting listen, at the very least.

OutKast — Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

Did it deserve album of the year? No. Was it one of OutKast's best? No. Was it still a completely and wholly interesting and engaging listen front to back just based on the personalities of the performers and their evolution up this point? You better believe it. As a long time fan, it was just a little bit better than Stankonia (which was a disappointment, as a long time fan), but it was nowhere near the expounding artistic masterpiece that it was made out to be in the mainstream press. Make no mistakes, I will take Big Boi's willfully weird, yet somehow still pleasantly poppy Speakerboxxx any day over Andre3000's P-Funk-via-regurgitated-early-80's Prince schtick any day. With tracks like "Ghetto Musick", "Way You Move", "War", "Flip Flop Rock" and "Reset", Big Boi tapped into that curious social conscious that was equal parts pop and avant garde. Andre's half had the generation defining "Hey Ya!" and the seriously underrated "She Lives In My Lap" amidst a smattering of ponderous doodlings that ultimately went nowhere, but it was nowhere near as interesting. Overall, it's in the middle of OutKast's catalogue as far as it's standing, but it is one of the single most listenable albums of the decade for sure — simply based on its uber-pop moments masked behind willful eccentricities.

The Postal Service — Give Up

This set the stage for my inevitable Death Cab For Cutie obsession later on in the year after Transatlanticism came out. This was released on my 22nd birthday, if you can believe it. At the time, it struck me as the great lost New Order album and I said as much in my initial review. I can see where I was going with that description, but I now must put an addendum to it: New Order filtered through the Field Mice. And it's strange that an album as harmlessly as this one was conceived became as popular as it did. I mean, rightfully so, but wow, didn't see that one coming, did you? This album is just pure pop fun. Of the best sort that just resonates forever, no matter much the glitchy snyth production tries to date it. I love this album.

Quartetto LoGreco — Reflections

I was jonesing for some new Nicola Conte material big time when this came out, so I was checking out a lot of things on the Schema label in hopes of finding something similar. Well, this album was nothing like Jet Sounds, but it was a straight acoustic post-bop album that knocked my socks off. Uniquely featuring a few songs with tenor as the lead and then alternate recordings with flute as the lead, the album was a contemporary recording by younger cats that was equal parts spiritual and passionate, but lacking the pretentiousness that most western groups of similar style exhibit. I loved it and found it wholly refreshing.

The Sea and Cake — One Bedroom

Basically the band's synth-pop album. I was disappointed. I've grown to like it a little more, but I still stick by my initial sentiment that there's three or four amazing tracks and the rest of the album's sub-par material is dipped in keyboards to cover up the shortcomings. "Four Corners" still kicks complete ass, along with "Hotel Tell" and their shocker cover of Bowie's "Sound & Vision", but the rest is a little more presentation over substance and, consequently, it's probably my least favorite album by the band.

The Sea and Cake — Glass EP

Ok, just an EP, but it still kicks One Bedroom's ass. "To the Author" appears in two differing versions that show that the band could integrate heavy keyboards and still sound like themselves, while "Traditional Wax Coin" sounds like something from Sam Prekop's self-titled album (in a good way). The potential was fulfilled on "An Echo In", which, at that point, was the band's best song since The Fawn. A fuzz distortion on the bass, looming synth washes, a wah wah pedal and easily their most resonating melody in at least five years. I swear, this song is probably in the band's top three ever. Too bad it was buried away on this EP. An appropriate Sam Prekop lyric here: "So, that's a shame... I could be wrong." Oh yeah, some pretty good remixes at the end too (of which, the Stereolab one was the least interesting, if you can believe it). If I doubted them after One Bedroom, Glass made me question myself.

David Sylvian — Blemish

Ok, to be completely clear: I love this album. I find it to be a work of complete artistic independence made by a musician who believes in his audience so much that he would make one of his most challenging works this late in his career. Not to mention, the music is jarringly stark, in a fascinating way. A wonderful moment of purely bleak venerability recorded and documented for all to witness. However, as he would say, the trouble is: I can't listen to it. It is such an involving, heavy listen. Be it the thirteen minute title track that kicks off the album or the numerous accounts of considering children in the midst of a domestic separation, it's just a bleak, forever down look at Sylvian's own divorce. Sparse and mostly acapella, it makes the listener focus wholly on the lyrics. And guess what? They're not so happy. Quick sample: "I came to hate her" — no, seriously, he says that about the mother of his children =( However, this sort of quiet airing of the dirty laundry has a distinct and definite effect on the discerning listener (read: me). For all its bleakness and Eeyore-like sadness, there is one song here that is genuinely and completely beautiful, in every aspect of the word: "A Fire In the Forest." One of the most demon-exorcising and redemptive songs I've ever heard, coming last in the track sequence, it feels like true personal revelation. With lyrics like "There is always sunshine, far above the grey sky. I know that will find it, yes I will try" it's one of the best songs of the decade and one of my favorites of all time.

Throwing Muses — Throwing Muses

And then, they rocked relentlessly. Seven years after Limbo and long after many of my hopes had faded for another album, there came this album released on the same day as The Grotto (no, seriously). I didn't like it at first because these guitars on this record are chunky and loud. I mean, this is RAWK. Right off the bat on "Mercury", Dave Narcizo's stuttering drumming made it clear that this was indeed the Muses as I fondly remembered them from their classic albums — Tanya Donelly and all. Despite the modest drums-bass-guitar presentation of the songs, they were seriously layered and it wasn't until the fourth or fifth listen that I really started to notice the subtleties of this album. Labyrinthine, nearly mathematic riffs would quickly meld into epic pop hooks and then back again, without any consideration for anything other than the purpose of making pop sound smart. The last two tracks ("Half Blast" and "Flying") reminded me heavily of University and Limbo and, with every subsequent play of the album, it's those two songs that remind me that if this is to be the last album Kristin makes under the Throwing Muses moniker, she couldn't have done the name more in regards to paying a last respect.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Albums of the past decade: 2002

The Appleseed Cast — Lost Songs

Containing weird noise experiments ("House On A Hill"), a completely unexpected —and unexpecdtedly good— remix (the "Ambient Cannibalization" of one of the album's earlier tracks) and secretly three of the band's best songs ("Peril," "Take" and "Novice"), this comes off ultimately like exactly what it is: a piecemeal collection that is completely uncohesive, but still rewarding. Sure, a footnote of a release, but as these songs actually predate the Low Level Owl material, it's fascinating nonetheless. I think this is probably better viewed as a compilation, as it's not really a proper album within the band's catalogue. It certainly was a quencher for me because the majority of it sounded like Low Level Owl outtakes.

Beck — Sea Change

I spent many nights listening to this album by myself and just thinking. The melancholy mood coupled with the loping tempos and Nigel Godrich's sparse, airy and beautiful production seems an invitation to that sort of thing that you just can't refuse. The slight acoustic twang and brilliant touches of pedal steel in some of the songs played up the sad, boozy country singer image of the material and the album was all the better for it. I often pull this album out a few times a year and I still know the songs note for note. Kind of a downer, but my favorites usually are. Although he's seen as the poster boy for the nerdy white junk funk, I truly believe, in the long run, this is the album that Beck will be remembered for. Because it's certainly his most enduring.

Breeders — Title TK

I hated it at the time. Boy, did I ever. Complained there were no tunes to be found anywhere on the damn thing. I listen to it a lot more these days and I've found that it's just one of those albums you can't be too critical of. Like most things in the Breeders' catalogue, it has a very tossed-off, in-the-minute vibe to its presentation. It's not a particularly fun record, but it's not exactly challenging either. "London Song" and "Forced To Drive" have leveled out over the years to reveal themselves to be the album's highlights, but truly, the album is better as a whole. Aggressively sparse, perhaps to a fault. But maybe that was intentional, because the more you play it, the more you notice things you missed previously and the better it gets.

The Chameleons — Live at the Academy

You just can't say enough about how awesome the Chameleons sound live. You just hear this gigantic mountain of beautiful echoey reverby strum and it just doesn't compute that there's only four guys making this epic wall of noise. This is pretty much a greatest hits live sort of album, as it captures the band on their reunion tour. A good mix of old favorites and key songs from the then new album. Sure, you could argue about the selections, but at two discs worth of material, what's here is more than good with me. As wonderful as it is, it's still a live album, so, as such things go, it's mostly only for fans.

The Chameleons — This Never Ending Now

But, on the hand, this is a rather deceptive little record. Another semi-acoustic album of reworked old songs and re-recordings of songs from the new album? Must be a throwaway or contract fulfillment, right? Well, I went in cynically myself, but instead of just playing the songs straight, the album has a unique, intimate feeling to it that breathes new life into classics like "Tears" and "Is It Any Wonder?" The feeling of retrospect and nostalgia that permeates the performances here felt all the more magnified when the band's second disbandment was announced and these were basically the final recordings. Certainly not their most representative album, but more than a footnote and definitely one of my favorites of the decade.

Death Cab For Cutie — Stability EP

A three song EP that shed the familiarity of The Photo Album and, at that point, seemed like the band was going full force into slowcore territory. "20th Century Towers" and the 12-minute title track were a seeming homage to bands like Codeine and Karate. Smack dab in the middle was a near revelatory cover of Bjork's "All is Full of Love." Three songs of hopeful gloom. Wonderful stuff, in all truthfulness. It sounded like the band willfully challenging themselves to do something different and while it was certainly not 100% successful, I loved it at the time. Still do, in fact.

DJ Shadow — The Private Press

I remember being disappointed at the time. But, about six or eight months later, it occurred to me: anything would have disappointed after Endtroducing. There was simply no way he could top that album, especially after an eight year hiatus. Assessing the album on its own terms, you get a glorious hodgepodge of sounds and styles that shouldn't hold together, but confusingly does. The proto-mashup "Six Days" would have been the album's centerpiece were it not for the show-stopping magnificence of "Blood On the Motorway." The best thing about this album is that, besides the few vocal parts here and there, musically speaking, there was no evolution from Endtroducing. It was only a perfection and polishing of that sound. Had Endtroducing not come first, this is the album that would've changed the world. Since it did though, this can now be considered as probably one of the best albums of the decade that was also a huge disappointment.

Doves — The Last Broadcast

Like all of Doves' albums, a seriously unified musical statement. Where some albums get criticized for not being cohesive enough, I would say that The Last Broadcast is too cohesive for its own good. Every song here is so good that they all start to sound pretty samey after a few listens. Oh, except for that little seven minute mini-epic about the fear that is basically a sound collage history of Manchester music. That one wasn't half-bad. On the whole though, probably my least favorite Doves album.

J-Live — All of the Above

To this day, one of the most mature hip hop albums ever created. And please note that I'm using the description 'mature' here as a good (great, in fact) attribute, not as a synonym for 'uneventful' or 'boring.' Technically J's second album, but his first to really be released on schedule as he intended, it was a wonderful blend of carefree boom-bap chunkiness and more soulful, thought-provoking organic elements. Songs like "The 4th 3rd", "Nights Like This" and "Satisfied?" showed there was somebody out there in hip hop land that was able to take the reigns from older similarly-minded groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest and do the music justice. An album I revisit sporadically, but enjoy the heck out of whenever I do.

Public Enemy — Revolverlution

Yes, that's my own Chuck D-autographed cover for this album. It would be the last new PE record that I would buy. It was the first time that I started to have the realization that PE was just not as creatively fertile as they used to be. Even their previous album (the bleakly brilliant There's A POISON Goin' On) was good old classic-sounding Public Enemy. But, amongst a smattering of fan remixes and irrelevant live cuts, the few new songs here were just not good. They've gone on to flood the market ever since and, I'm sad to say, I just don't care anymore.

Q and Not U — Different Damage

Probably the Q's best album, it's definitely their most focused. Starting off noticeably (and quite effectively) toned down with "Soft Pyramids" and running through a cycle of post-hardcore rants and sidebars, it was one of those things that I listened to at the time for the sheer uniqueness it held within my music collection, but as the years have passed and the dust has settled, this one stands up as one of the hidden indie rock gems of the decade.

The Roots — Phrenology

And here is where the line in the sand is drawn. Some hated it, some loved it. Nobody thought this album was 'just ok' or 'not bad.' I didn't think too highly of it at the time, but I still listened with intent ears because it was a new record by one of my favorite groups. Listening now, I can't really say what I disliked so much about it, because it all sounds somewhere in the range of 'not bad' to 'pretty dern good.' The most enduring songs here for me are "The Seed 2.0" simply for the fact that it amused me that they got more popular than ever with one of their least poppy songs and "Water" which was such a rare moment of gut-wrenchingly personal confession from Black Thought that it seemed like I didn't really have a choice of whether or not I liked it. I remember hearing that song for the first time and it wasn't a question of whether or not I liked it; it was more a question of just how good the song was (the answer, as it turned out, was 'epic good'). Certainly not their best album, time has revealed it to be, perhaps ironically, just ok.

Roddy Frame — Surf

The album that would've made him a superstar had he released it in 1986. It's strange to think that this album, released twenty years into his career, was his first all acoustic affair. And it's a good one, to be absolutely sure. At the time, it struck me as his most direct —and, let's be honest here: best— songwriting in quite some years. That last Aztec Camera album was too overproduced and his first album under his own name was import-only, so this was the first new music of his I heard since Frestonia. And it pretty much rocked my world as much as an all acoustic album can. It surprised me thoroughly and it's become one of my favorite middle of the summer midnight walk albums.

Sonic Youth — Murray Street

Hailed as a return to form at the time, I liked about half of it more than anything on their previous two or three albums. The remaining material was pretty good too, but all of it was certainly nothing new. It can now be viewed as the start of a trilogy of albums for the band that found them in a creative renaissance that revealed nothing new, but found them in better spirits than they'd been in for years. If anything, it was the first album where I really started to notice the jammy aspects of the band, which was confusing and simultaneously awesome.

Much more on the way.


Friday, January 1, 2010

Book Review: I'm Really Dragged But Nothing Gets Me Down by Nat Hentoff

After a random thrift store find of this title, it sat around for a long while and I picked it up and breezed through it in a couple of marathon sessions over a couple days. What initially drew me to it was that it was written by a name that I knew from reading loads and loads of liner notes on jazz albums: Nat Hentoff.

Before I get into the ramifications of Hentoff writing this kind of book and the story itself, I should say that I, too, am white and of somewhat privileged background; so there was something for me to latch onto in this story.

Hentoff is white. Like me. He is writing about the perspective of an upper middle class white teenager in the late 60's worried about being drafted into the army at the height of the Vietnam war.

This is an interesting dichotomy. The main character, Jeremy, seemingly has a choice of whether or not he wants to even be considered for the draft. He is pretty much guaranteed entrance into a university, and therefore, immunity from military service. But —and here's the twist— he is staunchly opposed to the war and (at least he claims) would resist even if he was forced into the draft.

The main plot revolves around whether or not Jeremy intends to register for the draft. If he does, he feels as if he has sold his own beliefs out; even knowing that his chances of being sent to Vietnam are virtually nonexistent. If he doesn't, he risks five years in jail, but for what? He wouldn't have gone to Vietnam anyway, so it would have been purely a move to prove his loyalty to his cause (a/k/a 'martyrdom').

And that sums up the book. It is purely a meditation on the perceived wrongs and rights of different opposing positions to the Vietnam war. Through the narrative of Jeremy's experiences over roughly two weeks, we get to hear just about every possible angle on the subject.

I think the most poignant aspect of the book is when Jeremy and his friends go to the poor high school (read: mostly minority) to have a 'meeting of the minds' session of sorts, most of the poor kids are not opposed to —and, in fact, quite excited by— the prospect of going to war. They see it as a step up in society; a way to be respected and make something of themselves. Never, in the entire thing, is it ever a matter of choice for them. Or rather, the choice is: stay at home and be nothing or join the service and be something. A jarring perspective, for sure.

But the main things to keep in mind here are such: this is the perspective of a kid who actually has a choice of going or not going and the general perspective is one that opposes war of all kinds in general.

Although all perspectives are heard from, the really unique thing about the views explored here is that they reflect the war at home more than anything else. In fact, I'd say that's the main theme of the book. It's as if every character has accepted the war for what it is and now they are all fighting with themselves —and each other— in order to deal with the reality and gravity of the situation.

The great thing is: take away the draft and you could apply a lot of the scenarios and sentiments detailed in the book to present day America in regards to Iraq.

Sure, some of the material and the slang has dated by this point, but take that away and you could easily apply these themes to contemporary America.

At a brisk one hundred and twenty-some odd pages, I'm Really Dragged But Nothing Gets Me Down is definitely worth the time if you're not in favor of prolonged, uncertain wars but are also conflicted within yourself about the pros and cons of such situations.

Not a super duper masterpiece, but worthwhile brainfood.