Saturday, February 27, 2010

Albums of the past decade: 2006

The Appleseed Cast — Peregrine

It's been a while, so I feel like I can come out and just say this: I didn't like Two Conversations. It was noticeably absent from my list of mentionable albums of 2003. It was so faceless and confused sounding, how could there be anything worth mention for an album that was missing most of the qualities of what made the band worth talking about in the first place? Where that album felt completely out of place coming as the first proper new material after Low Level Owl, Peregrine was a fully integrated, completely cohesive journey through the sound of a band not backing down from the unlimited potential presented previously. Two Conversations seemed to cower a bit in Low Level Owl's shadow, explaining its sore thumb status. But Peregrine had shifting time signatures, quiet moments of bliss, blaring explosions of noise, instrumental layers built from subtle use of unlikely sources — but most of all, this was all done in the most accomplished manner. The songs are probably the band's catchiest yet. They just had this jarring presentation that masked the songs in an effects pedal haven of post-rock pretenses. It's probably the Apppleseed Cast album that wears its post-production on its sleeve most apparently as well. The extra little treatments and layers of sound this provided made the album a serious surprise and it was all the more rewarding for it. Something like "Sunlit and Ascending" finds the band most prominently displaying their U2 and Chameleons influences in its initial movement, but the vocals kick in and the song takes a completely different turn into an entirely new direction. Not only is it probably the album's highlight, it's a stunning example of how to properly use one's influences to build something new. At the time, it was easily their second best album for me.

Ron Carter — Dear Miles,

It only seemed logical for Ron Carter to do a Miles Davis dedication album, it just seemed an odd time to finally do it when Dear Miles was released. It consisted of what was basically Ron's live setlist for the past few years and had been out in Japan for over a year when it finally got released in North America. He touches on many of the standards that Miles had made famous (and many of those, Ron had played on the initial recordings) and instead of just feeling like a rehash of material that he could play in his sleep, the renditions here are short and sweet. Stephen Scott is once again at the forefront of the affair, getting ample spotlight time, but it's clear from the first track that the elder's direction is being upheld in the performances. The material is clearly still an inspiration to Ron after all these years, as this is probably the best album of his more recent run for Blue Note. And, in the case of something like "Seven Steps to Heaven," the rendition here is so full of energy and creativity, it may not be the definitive version of the tune, but it's definitely up for consideration. Definitely one of my favorites of the decade.

The Durutti Column — Keep Breathing

It's very clear, from the first moment that a sampled piano and undeniably Vini Reilly guitar line opens this album, that there's something up. It's updated trip-hop via produced layers sound was hinted at a bit on Rebellion, but that was just a foundation on which Keep Breathing builds an illuminating, Technicolor-infused rebirth for the Durutti Column. Sure, the idea of a guy singing badly and playing an incredibly noodly guitar atop drum machines and building new riffs around sampled vocals was nothing new for Vini (he had first mastered it on the Vini Reilly album in 1989), but there's a vibrancy, a newly expressed enthusiasm and passion on this album — it just ups the bar in terms of overall quality. Quite a few of the songs just have single world titles —many of those subsequently being just proper names— which I take as an implication of how closely Vini was connected with this material. The subjects are clearly and explicitly defined, but the expositions of the lyrics to the songs are a bit more obtuse and leave some interpretation to the listener to sort out. But that disregards the melodic strength of the material. Which is to say, these are some of Vini's best written songs in ages. Were it not for his awful singing, songs like "It's Wonderful" or "Helen" could legitimately be considered for mainstream radio airplay. Truly, this album has probably the most produced, accessible sheen of any Durutti Column record, but the material is so good, it feels like a compliment to say so, not a complaint. It blew me away when I first heard it. It solidified that Vini was quite probably the most relevant music maker in the world at that point. One of the best of decade. Excellent. And a bit scary, because he managed to do even better.

The Evens — Get Evens

Firing again quickly just over a year after the release of their first self-titled album, Get Evens was another dose of stripped down songwriting greatness from Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina. The songs on this album were a bit more angry and riled up, but they were also more fleshed out with the band revealing layers within the material that would be otherwise obscured had they presented it differently. More harmonizing, arrangement shifts and just downright better melodies made for quite a surprise of an album for me. Most of the songs have become topical curiosities by now because of the duo's obsession with venting about then president George W. Bush. But, overall, it's probably my favorite of their two albums just because the songs are so dern catchy. I expected another quick shot to be fired not long after this album was released, but got nothing. Would love to hear from them again.

Andrew Hill — Timelines

Upon its release, Time Lines gained interest from just about everybody who should have been interested because it was Andrew's reunion with Blue Note Records. Charles Tolliver was on board and we were all excited as hell. To me, it sounded like classic Andrew Hill on Blue Note. Thoughtfully composed melodies and exploratory soloing that hinted at the avant garde, but never dove completely in. As I had not followed his records more recently, I had no idea what to expect, but I was completely satisfied with the album. Starting off with the depressingly gorgeous "Malachi," skipping through the surprisingly Abdullah Ibrahim-esque title track and ending up back at "Malachi" in a solo piano revisit, the album was a soulful and invigorating update from a master upon his own classic sound. Nobody saw his death coming a little over a year later, making Time Lines Andrew Hill's last album. Hard to think of a finer swan song. Absolutely one of the best of the 2000's.

J Dilla — Donuts

This album cannot be heard without memories of James Yancey's death immediately arising. The legends soon trickled out and formed: he allegedly sat in a hospital bed with his MPC on his lap and worked on material for this album while his Lupus ravaged kidneys were struggling to keep functioning. The album was released on Tuesday, he died on Friday. Sorry, knowing that, I can't hear this music and evaluate it objectively. It was a confused and chaotic statement from a man who was unsure of how much time he had left. Is it his best work? I don't think so. Was it years ahead of its time? Probably, because even now, I still don't completely get it. But I don't know, in the shadow of his untimely death, none of that ephemera seems very important. So I guess the bottom line is: is it good? And the answer is always a resounding yes. It's very good, actually. Worthy of mention among the best of the decade? I'd say so.

J Dilla — The Shining

This album was finished and released posthumously under the direction of some surely well-meaning Dilla affiliates, but it does feel a little stopgap. Despite my discrepancies, there were some really fantastic songs here: "E=MC²" featured Common in his best b-boy shit talking mode, "Won't Do" was the sort of super spaced out mini epic that Dilla made his name upon and all of the instrumentals were worthwhile. But if felt very much like a compilation with all of the different vocalists and it just wasn't a good final sendoff for one of the true musical visionaries of the last twenty years. A disappointment.

Morrissey — Ringleader of the Tormentors

Arguably for the first time ever, Morrissey was genuinely personal in his music. Sure, he had been personal before, but there was always a degree of aloofness or distance in his presentation. Something like "Dear God Please Help Me" is not only one of his best songs, but also, all signs seem to point to it being autobiographical. Followed immediately by his best single in years, the mini epic rocker "You Have Killed Me," it makes for a hell of combo very early in the album. It should be mentioned that the album was produced by Tony Visconti (yes, that Tony Visconti), so with songs like "Life is a Pigsty," "You Have Killed Me," "The Youngest Was the Most Loved," "In the Future When All's Well" and "The Father Who Must Be Killed" being filtered through his guidance, it is easily Morrissey's most T Rex-sounding album. And it's the best work he's done since Vauxhall & I.

OutKast — Idlewild

When it came out, I could've cared less. I still checked it out just because it was OutKast and my reaction to the album was very similar to my reaction to the accompanying movie: it was surprisingly not horrible. It wasn't great either. Just a disappointingly alright album from a group who used to release generation-defining records every time out. Oh well. There was still more than enough quality material to merit repeated listens and enjoyment. But the most important thing to point out about this album is that, again, Big Boi's songs were easily the better of the bunch, while Andre3000's attempts at diversity once again fumbled clumsily over Prince and P-Funk-inspired doodlings with minimal success. The singles, "Mighty O" and "Morris Brown," were exceedingly good and there were a bunch of deep album cuts like "The Train," "Life is Like A Musical" and "Hollywood Divorce" that made the album worthy of repeat listens. It's grown on me in recent years and, even with its flaws and ridiculous length, it's still a good album. That's a testament to how great OutKast is: a second tier, seeming write-off of an album is still good. Both members have done music since, but more noticeably separated than ever. I suppose it's not a bad way to end a career; it's certainly an interesting final work (if it is, in fact, to be their last).

The Roots — Game Theory

No longer feeling label pressure and given the freedom to go forth in the direction of their choice on Def Jam, the Roots created a dense, paranoid album of deep, funk rock grooves and refocused on a sense of urgency in the vocals. Songs like "False Media," "In the Music" and "Here I Come" were the closest anybody had come in years to replicating the sound and vibe of classic Public Enemy. And it was solid and reassuring after a couple of underwhelming albums. There was a sense of nihilism or lost hope to the whole thing and while the message in the music was unclear, the vibe was not. The whole thing was confirmed with the album's last track, "Can't Stop This," which was an epic sendoff to the late J Dilla. Overall, it was an album that was not only surprising at some points, but it was incredibly satisfying. Appropriately, it featured Malik B's first performances with the band on record since Things Fall Apart and it was simultaneously the last Roots album to feature Leonard Hubbard on bass. They've moved on to bigger and better things since, but for the last album that featured the classic lineup of the band, it was one hell of a goodbye letter. Easily the Roots' best album of the last ten years and also among the decade's best records.

Sonic Youth — Rather Ripped

Sonic Youth's pop album. I loved it. It still sounded like them, but the songs were shorter, not quite as noisy and the concepts were clearly presented. It was kind of like an entire album of songs like "Unmade Bed" or "Disconnection Notice." Which, for me, is exactly what I wanted to hear Sonic Youth do. Kim stole the show, too, with songs like "Reena," "The Neutral" and especially "Jams Run Free" (one of the most epic four minute pop songs ever). Thurston's contributions were not slight, by any means either, with songs like "Incinerate," "Do You Believe In Rapture?," "Or" and the one big guitar workout "Pink Steam." It was clearly the band's most focused material in several albums. Sure, some of that resonance from the past two albums was sacrificed in place of catchy briefness, but Rather Ripped is a damn fine album no matter how you view it.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Albums of the past decade: 2005

Fiona Apple — Extraordinary Machine

In its bootlegged, Jon Brion-helmed form, I was satisfied, but underwhelmed. In its retail released, tinkered with form, I was disappointed. Granted, it was an album from one of my absolute favorites and it wasn't completely awful. But I don't know. There's just something about this album that still strikes me as having the quality of just releasing a record for the sake of releasing a record. "O, Sailor" is glorious and "Not About Love" gives me chills just thinking about it, but the rest of the album was just ok. Very close to filler. Granted, it was good filler. But filler nonetheless. Certainly not bad, but it was very clear that her entire heart wasn't in this one. I still love you, Fiona. Please make that hands down masterpiece that we both know you have in you sometime soon.

Vashti Bunyan — Lookaftering

This was my introduction to the enchanting world of Vashti Bunyan's music. As she was described to me as the 'female Nick Drake' I realized that I had potentially missed out on something huge. New album by old artist; perfect timing. And sheesh, if this album wasn't as good as could be expected, then I don't know what the world's come to. We played it on the stereo when I worked at Tower as often as we could get away with. It was that good. Timeless music. I still listen to it very often. Songs like "Wayward" (featuring Devendra Banhart doing his best Vini Reilly impression) and the unbelievably resonating "Hidden" were just two small pieces of one of the most solid albums of the decade. Hopefully another one is on the vague horizon.

Common — Be

Sure, it's easy to get really cynical about it in retrospect, but at the time, it was satisfying as hell. I listened to it a few times front to back after buying it and it just struck me as a classic Common album. Truly, it sounded like the album that spiritually belonged between Resurrection and One Day It'll All Make Sense. Sure, looking back, that's total creative regression coming after Electric Circus, but it sounded damn good when it dropped. And, surely, I have several fond memories of Com looking like he was loving the material as he was playing it live. I could've done without "Go", but otherwise, the album was complete quality. Even if it will go down as his last good album, at least it won't disrespect his run of classic albums that led up to it.

Death Cab for Cutie — Plans

At the time, I was naive and expecting the world. Coming off the Postal Service and Transatlanticism, I figured Ben Gibbard would be ready to unleash his magnum opus upon the world. It wasn't until after I heard this album that I realized that he had already unleashed it with Transatlanticism. And that is to say, this album sucked supremely to me at first. When they released "Soul Meets Body" as the teaser single, my expectations shot from high to stratospheric. And what did I get? Second rate U2 and Coldplay imitations in the form of "Your Heart is an Empty Room" and "What Sarah Said." Full disclosure: I was pissed. I boycotted the show when they played Reno. Years have passed. The album has grown on me. I still absolutely hate and feel betrayed by three or four tracks on the album, but the rest? Yeah, it's pretty fuckin' good. I still do have reservations about most of the material being obsessed with death and an overall Eyore-like gloomy outlook, but it's really grown on me. "Marching Bands of Manhattan"? Awesome opener. "Soul Meets Body"? On par with "Just Like Heaven" in the annals of amazing pop songs that are popular because they're just that good. "I Will Follow You Into the Dark"? Lifechanging. But why, "Crooked Teeth"? Why? Uneven and uncohesive as hell, but with enough highlights to endure. I'm now mad I didn't see them on this tour; I probably should have.

Death Cab for Cutie — The John Byrd EP

However, earlier in the year, they released this last goodbye release to their ever-loyal indie label Barsuk. Some of these songs were recorded mere days after I saw them on the Transatlanticism tour and it's just a magnificent document. I don't want to say they will never top Transatlanticism, but it's still their best album to this day. And that tour was just magical. Even in a dumpy venue in Reno on a gloomy night, there was a hint of fuzzy, warm lightness. And this mini-album captured that incredibly well. I can clearly remember singing along to all of these songs at the gig and, if I can't have a recording of that exact show, this is the next best thing. It was one of the contributing factors that pushed my expectations for Plans so high.

Doves — Some Cities

Wow. Just... man. Where do you begin? Well, I suppose I should just say right now that this is one of my top picks of the decade. To this day, it's still their shortest album. It's quite probably their loudest album as well, with tons of clipping warm melodic distortion, bubbling electronics and probably Andy Williams' most cymbal-heavy, relevant performance on record yet. Eleven concise tracks and a true hit among them with the deceptively bouncy "Black and White Town." I find it strange that that song was a hit when there are just as many readily poppy (or even poppier) songs on the album like "Almost Forgot Myself", "Sky Starts Falling" and the astronomical, gargantuan highlight "Snowden." Perhaps that's why this album sticks out so much for Doves: for all its noisy harshness, deep down, it is their most humanly melodic and modestly presented album yet. For all its effects and big presentation of the songs, the material, when stripped to its core, is quite frankly their strongest. The wall is down for once, and instead of a series of impenetrable, but admirable, Jimi Goodwin lyrics, you get a look into the soul of this band; what makes them tick. Songs like "Someday Soon" or "Shadows of Salford" are quite possibly the most human things they've yet recorded, along with Jimi's confession of 'Man, I've always felt your pain' after an epic, melodica-laced buildup on "Walk In Fire." Indeed, "Someday Soon" makes a very intentional reference to a Smiths riff, showing that the band is audibly proud of Manchester and their musical roots. And, in the case of a song like "Snowden," the specific meaning may be obscured, but the message is universal enough, and the tune amazingly pastoral enough, that the song feels like an absolute modern day classic. The whole thing just reeks of personal revelation and liberation. Revisit it; there's more there than just "Black and White Town." One of the few things created by a contemporary band this decade that strikes me as being a touchstone of its generation. Stunningly good.

Jukka Eskola — Jukka Eskola

A member of the wonderful Five Corners Quintet (which we'll get to in a moment), he actually released his own album before Five Corners got their first full length out. On his own album, Jukka was much more open to modern trends, as there were samples, stompin' four-to-the-floor time signatures, electric keyboards and some good old turntable techniques. All of that atop what was basically acoustic jazz and you got amazingly cohesive songs like "1974" and "Buttercup." Throw in a serious drum break and Roy Ayers reference in "Timber Up" and you got an album that was glad to be considered a throwback with a modern slant. Probably better than the proper Five Corners releases, in all honesty.

The Evens — The Evens

Wait, is that Ian MacKaye? Why is he not shouting? Who is that girl harmonizing and drumming for him? Why isn't this a new Fugazi album? All valid questions, and yet, all rendered irrelevant upon actually hearing the album. At first, it nearly felt like Ian MacKaye goes pop, as every song here had a hummable, catchy melody and little to no distortion. But, the more I listened, the more I realized, the guy is old(er) by this point and there's not much anybody can do about that. We all grow up. It was surely hinted at with Fugazi's (last album?) The Argument, but this just confirmed the hell out of it: Ian MacKaye likes to play quieter-ish music now. I seriously had no complaints. This album kicked my ass for a good year afterwords. And I still have no complaints. It's one of those quietly revelatory albums where you don't realize just how much you love it until you realize, years later, that you still know the words and riffs from beginning to end.

The Five Corners Quintet — Chasin' the Jazz Gone By

And because I knew the riffs (in the case of a few songs) years before I actually heard this album, it was all the more disappointing. Sometimes, as a vinyl junkie, I feel excluded when the album is finally released and all those singles you've treasured for months (and sometimes years) are included on the album like the band really didn't care about you the whole time. Judging it on its own musical terms and ignoring all of the baggage that the pre-album singles carried, it's a refreshing and eye-opening album that generated a scene. Truly, if you weren't aware of the Ricky-Tick label and hadn't been keeping up with the band's ten and twelve inch singles in the years previous, it would have blown your mind. For me, the blowing of the mind was relegated to short, pre-album bursts of ten inch magic. The "new" songs were all just as fantastic as ever; all incorporating that undeniably dancefloor friendly vibe into an updated Cannonball Adderley-inspired traditionalist soul jazz groove. Sure, having it all in one place puts its importance into perspective, but nothing beats those initial needle drops onto the vinyl. I still recommend it to folks though. And the Five Corners are probably my favorite new band of the decade. The album just wasn't satisfying, that's all.

Ahmad Jamal — After Fajr
In the midst of a smattering of his unique revisions of standards, Ahmad Jamal followed up In Search of Momentum with even more proof that he was experiencing creative rebirth as a composer. The album's title track was an absolutely gorgeous vocal and piano duet that I would have called a throwback, were it not recorded by a veteran like Ahmad. Perhaps most surprising about the whole thing were the two older-ish originals that he revisited for the first time in at least twenty years. "Manhattan Reflections", last heard on an 80's release was as sharp as ever, but the real shocker was "Swahililand." It was aired out on record for the first time in thirty years and it was a doozy. In stark contrast to the original big budget, fully orchestrated original recording from 1974's Jamal Plays Jamal album, this was a modest trio recording of the tune. The sparseness of the arrangement focuses everything on the subtle complexities of the composition and really brings out the full genius of the tune. I was able to catch the trio on this tour and they played all three highlights from this album: "After Fajr" (though in a really great contrasting instrumental arrangement), "Manhattan Reflections" and an epic run through of "Swahililand." Probably the best of Ahmad's recent run of albums.

New Order — Waiting For the Sirens' Call
New Order is just a great band. Period. So, even when they make a clearly second tier album like this, it's still pretty solid. When it kicked off with "Who's Joe?" —one of the band's best songs— I had no doubts it would be good. Sure, in the long run, it doesn't even begin to stack up to their old albums from the 80's, but the bottom is: it's an album by a band that is known for its high quality control. "Hey Now What You Doing", "Krafty" and "Jetstream" were all pretty awesome songs when you go back to them. I think the album's biggest flaw was its length. Though, even with all the unnecessary bits, it's still better than Get Ready. Easily. And if it is to be their last album, at least we can say their last album didn't feature Billy Corgan.

Nine Horses — Snow Borne Sorrow
Though I was a late comer to this one and, even after all that time, it still took me a year or so to really 'get' it, this album is startlingly good. It was David Sylvian's first musical work since Blemish and to say that it was a big turnaround would be only a half-truth. Musically, yes. It was a true working band philosophy and the songs were backed up by a menagerie of sounds. Steve Jansen and David were reunited once again, so it would be *extremely* hard not to hear this album and wonder if this is a slight indication of where Japan would've ended up. But lyrically, David was just as bummed out as ever. But, here, instead of directing all of that unrest inwards, he projected off of himself and analyzed the situations in the surrounding world. With references to holding grudges against, while simultaneously appeasing, your neighbor and allusions to events 'as the buildings fall down,' it is a seeming hour long reaction to the events of September 11th, 2001 and the implications of that day. Although my view, as an American, is a skewed one, I hear a lot of the lyrics in that light. And, while it is certainly not the happiest of subjects, it does feel gracefully and thoughtfully articulated. With the somber, lightly electronic backing music meshing head on with brilliant acoustic sounds, it achieves that rare moment of somber music that is just as melancholy as it is liberating; as soothing as it is thought-provoking. Not to mention, "Seratonin" just kicks so much ass. I've never been so bummed out while feeling like I had to dance. It often feels like one of the decade's most important albums. And even if it isn't, it's certainly one of the best. Outstanding.

The Occasional Keepers — The Beauty of the Empty Vessel
I expected not much and I got a modest, quiet, rewarding offshoot of an album. Bob Wratten's name on anything guarantees an automatic purchase from me, so I checked this one out and was initially put off by the lack of his songs. When I took a step back and evaluated the album on its own terms, I found one of those really unassuming side projects that most people will either forget or didn't know about in the first place, but the hardcore among us will find rewarding aspects for many years to come. I became aware of The Wake because of this album's existence, so that can't be all bad. It had a very quiet, nearly English folk-rock-via-glitchy ProTools mindset vibe to it. And Bob's songs were exceptional (especially "Rose-Scented Fire"). Far from amazing, but good lord, did I play the ever loving goodness out of it.

Sam Prekop — Who's Your New Professor?
At the time, it struck me as a more guitar-featuring stopgap Sea and Cake album. It had all of the electronics that Sam's band had immersed itself in for its previous two releases, but with songs like the excellent Neil Young-esque "Dot Eye", Sam was clearly at the helm. It featured most of his Sea and Cake bandmates as players, so that probably explains the overt similarity. But, truly, if One Bedroom was maybe a misstep in terms of his songwriting, Who's Your New Professor? made any doubts seem silly. With tunes like "Something", the previously mentioned "Dot Eye", "Two Dedications", "C + F" and the gorgeous "Between Outside" it seemed an insult to insinuate that his best songs were behind him. I do like his first solo album more just for its importance in his own catalogue as an evolving musician, but Who's Your New Professor? is just another notch in the belt of high quality that he's upheld his entire career.

Archer Prewitt — Wilderness

From his past albums, I knew he was capable of the big, cinematic arrangements and longing, super resonating pop tunes. But nothing really prepared me for this. Wilderness is definitely the least likely candidate to make my albums of the decade list, but with the combination of intensely reflective lyrics (the most personal of his career, in fact), the heart wrenching (and extremely well-thought out) arrangements mixing with the unpredictability of the tunes themselves combined for a magical experience. There are few albums released this decade that you could justifiably and accurately assign the term timeless to, but Wilderness is easily the leading candidate. Ditching the 70's pop flourishes and twee pop leanings of past albums and making his masterpiece, Archer not only distinguished himself an identity outside of his band, but, with this album, declared himself as a solo artist and singular talent with few peers. I love this album. It's just one of those warm, fond experiences that can equally cheer up a bad day or make a good day into a great one. He still hasn't made another album under his own name since and I can't help but wonder if it's a little bit because he feels like he accomplished such a masterstroke with this album that to bother any further would be a little bit pointless. Because Wilderness is that good.

Red Sparowes — At the Soundless Dawn

Although I do feel like this may be a case where a band's first album is their best and they struggle through the rest of their existence to make something equally as relevant (not to mention, as good), At the Soundless Dawn is pure instrumental rock soundscaping magic. The whole certainly is greater than the sum of its parts (like all good 'post-rock' should be), so naming favorite tunes seems futile. But just know, it's one of the best soundtracks for a non-existent movie this side of David Axelrod. For a somewhat melodramatic sub-genre, Red Sparowes found that all important medium between technical noodlery and tunefully resounding articulation in post-rock. Good stuff.

David Sylvian — The Good Son vs. The Only Daughter: The Blemish Remixes

I have never been a fan of remix albums, so when I heard about a David Sylvian remix album for his most sparse work, I was very cynical. With yet another example of why David Sylvian is just that much better of a person than I am, he commissioned some remixers to basically (in most cases) take his vocals and add music to them. So, for some folks, this will be the "real" version of Blemish. I still like the originals better, but the revisions of "The Heart Knows Better" (by Sweet Billy Pilgrim), "How Little We Need To Be Happy" (by Tatsuhiko Asano) and especially the wonderfully Bjork-circa-Homogenic groping "A Fire in the Forest" (by Readymade FC) were all valid, original takes on the tunes. If nothing else, this album gave me an entirely new point of view on this material and put the songs into a completely different, but still natural, context (which is what a good remix should do, but I digress). Far from a footnote, I saw it as David Sylvian's next proper album after Blemish. Note to Austin: have faith in David Sylvian; his are well made decisions.

Trembling Blue Stars — Bathed In Blue EP

Basically just the single for "The Sea is So Quiet." That song, in a very awesome retro-80's mode, is stretched out to seven glorious minutes in a 'Long Version' that recalls those 12"-only extended mixes that bands stopped doing somewhere around 1991. When The Seven Autumn Flowers first came out, I thought "The Sea is So Quiet" was one of the best 80's pop hits not released in the 80's (and said as much), but the fact that it lends itself so well the 'extended mix' treatment only seems to reinforce that. It was already one of my favorite songs by the band, but the version here feels definitive. Elsewhere, Beth's "Through the Silence and Games" is the sort of jangly pop song that you'd swear was supposed to be an a-side, Bob's then-recent Cure infatuation reached its apex with the stunning "Wounded Light" and things ended with the equally as epic "This is Bliss." With lyrics declaring that Bob genuinely and quite contently 'loves this place,' a twist duet ending and an all around post-punk gloomy happiness, it's secretly one of the band's best songs and something that should not have been tossed off onto an EP. But there you have it. This signified to me that the Stars were going to be making a big move with their next album. Seeing what came next, it should have been obvious and less jarringly good, but thanks to the modest nature of the EP presentation, it was probable, but not expected.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Gil Scott-Heron — I'm New Here

I'm New Here is the pseudo-hip hop, programmed beat heavy, spoken word dominated album that Gil Scott-Heron should have made twenty five years ago.

Except, twenty five years ago, he had way too much living to do to be able to make an album of this magnitude. He reacquired a heroin habit, kicked it again, acquired a cocaine habit, contracted AIDS and spent roughly eighteen months in prison during his "time off." Make no mistakes: Gil Scott-Heron's latest is a soul-wrenching, somewhat dreary, but always positive leaning (as obscure as that lean may be) affair that will leave the astute listener in a state of mental discomfort.

As the best of most music usually does.

It's as relateable as any of Gil's past music, but it's just confrontationally confessional. Amidst mentions of smoking crack and thoughts on what to do with his corpse after his soul passes, you get the bare naked recollections of a man who loved his grandmother, still loves his ex and still feels like an insecure black male because he was raised by women in a male-dominated western world. His view is one of the most unique ever recorded. Truly, the man packs more quotables into twenty eight minutes than most writers would hope to distribute over their entire careers.

I can't even begin to think of highlights. I'm New Here doesn't really feel like a group of songs as much as it does a single work of percussive bursts of introspective knowledge from one of the most solitary and divided talents of the past few generations. I purchased the album on vinyl and was rewarded with a coupon for an MP3 download of the entire album that added seven bonus tracks. These tracks only add to the singular experience of I'm New Here. Gil revisits three of his past classics ("Home is Where the Hatred Is?", "Is That Jazz?" and "Winter In America"; all solo vocal and piano takes: awesome) and some outtakes from the proper album sessions are included as well. Oh, and something that must be an outtake from Bridges or Secrets. Yeah, I nearly shit myself when I heard "My Cloud" because it clearly dates from the late 70's, just judging from Gil's voice. And guess what? It's right at home with this material. An excellent bonus. And very much satisfying because of the shortness of the proper album.

As someone who has listened to Gil's music for over half of my life, this album feels extremely revelatory. As good as Spirits was, it was stagnant. It was Gil treading water. Sure, better than most. But he could've done better. And, with I'm New Here, he took his time, but not only did he do better, he made an album that updates his classic sound, but still sits right next to that vintage material. The programmed beats and synth patches may associate it more with this era, but Gil's grasp on musical space and shying away from any sort of production (not to mention, overproduction) keeps things in perspective and context.

Sure, he doesn't sing as much as he used to, but that's only because his singing voice is pretty much shot by this point. His spoken word pieces have gone from scathing socio-political brain food to aggressively introspective mind movies that are nothing short of mini-masterpieces. And his singing pieces have remained aggressively introspective mind movies that are nothing short of soothing mini-masterpieces. His voice just isn't quite as soothing as it once was. But it is still as resonating as ever. Because of the rough gravely nature that it's taken on, perhaps even more so these days.

Make no mistake: I'm New Here is a scatterbrained, contradictory, in the moment account of a man who practically has defined the terms in his music and personal life throughout the years. The thing is: previously the music and the man existed independent of each other and I'm New Here could quite possibly be the first instance of the music and the man colliding head on for the first time ever.

If he never makes another album, at least his last will also be one of his very best.



Thursday, February 11, 2010

Albums of the past decade: 2004

The Arcade Fire — Funeral

Although fairly overrated in its aftermath, this album seemed to come out of nowhere initially. The first four songs on this thing are just about as good of a way as any to start your debut album. Unafraid to be epic and perhaps a bit pompous, Funeral tapped into an emotional, cinematic sentiment that carried throughout the entire album. While not the hands down masterpiece it was later claimed to be, it certainly was cohesive and solid enough to have deserved the initial hype.

David Axelrod — Live at Royal Festival Hall

When this came out, I had such a difficult time keeping myself from getting too excited about it. I mean, I knew it was startlingly good. I knew I'd be listening to it fairly regularly for years to come, never growing tired of it. I knew it was a defining moment for me as a music fan. But, I was trying to keep it under wraps for a while. I just acted like, 'Yeah, it's not bad.' Sheesh, what was I trying to prove? Sure, I've voiced my discrepancies with its song selections, but as far as the actual performances, forget it, it's as great as you could've hoped for. And it's not like the song selections are bad either; just predictable (which could be viewed as a good thing). And just knowing that it could've been something completely different, but instead was this glorious crowd pleaser makes it all the better. It's one of my tops of the decade. Easily. Arguably even better than the Mo'Wax album.

Bjork — Medulla

This was the album that nobody liked. All the Bjork fans I talked to all hated it. While it certainly wasn't my initial cup of tea, it grew on me and grew on me into this sacred experience of an album that I get a little choked up about just thinking about. "Desired Constellation", "Who is it?" and "Oceania" specifically are just resonating perfection. It's easily my favorite Bjork album. I'm not just trying to be that 'different guy' either. I've just grown and experienced a lot of life with this album and it just hits me that hard. Every time.

Nicola Conte — Other Directions

Meanwhile, on the jazz front, some Italian dude made an album (on Blue Note, no less) that seriously turned my world around. As if his previous album of samples and mock-improvised solos wasn't good enough, Nicola conducted and arranged this set of modern post-bop that fully integrated the dance floor and, simultaneously, wasn't horrible. Hard thing to do, mastering the classic and the contemporary so effortlessly. One of my definitive (and best) albums of the decade.

The Cure — The Cure

The first words Robert Smith muttered on the band's first self-titled (yet, 12th studio) album were, "I can't find myself." And it sounded like it. If you were looking for classic Cure, you were stuck listening to the album's b-sides (or, for those of us in America, the three extra tracks on the vinyl edition of the album). I don't know. It's certainly grown on me, albeit in a reconfigured fashion that does away with "Never" and "Us or Them" and incorporates all of the b-sides and extra tracks, but it still stands as a disappointment. It was the Cure being the tough rockers they always wanted to be, but never had the balls to actually be. And, like such forced circumstances may suggest, it didn't work. Not entirely anyway. Of course, the Cure being the Cure and Robert Smith being Robert Smith, there were inexplicably excellent songs like "alt.end" and the still stunning "Before Three" (which, much to my dismay, was not a cryptic reference to the long puzzling Seventeen Seconds track of similar namesake —at least as far as I know— even though it still kicked ass). Get those extra tracks and it may not be as much of a disappointment. But, initially, boy was I down. And not because it was a typically awesomely down Cure album. I think RS got the message too, as he fired longtime band members Roger O'Donnell and Perry Bamonte after the album's tour. Oh well, onward and upward (yes, even with Jason still at the drummer's chair).

De La Soul — The Grind Date

So the trilogy gets cut short as Tommy Boy folds. And instead of trying to get all super-uber-ambitious on their indie debut, De La cut the fat and made arguably their best album since Stakes is High. Actually, damn the argument, it was clearly their best in nearly ten years. They followed the feel-good vibes of Bionix with even more feel-good vibes, but on this album, it really felt liberating for them. Sure, it was just as moody as before, but this time, it was true, heart-felt fun 100% of the time. It did have a feeling of 'last hurrah'-ishness about it and that was only confirmed when the group just seemed to creatively tread water (pun recognized, but not intended) for their next few projects. The Grind Date, however, is perhaps the last glimpse of mid-90's NYC hip hop in its purest form. Because nobody's done it as good since. Not to mention, as soulfully.

Dj Rels — Theme For A Broken Soul

And then, here came Madlib. I believe he released three different full lengths in 2004. Under different names, of course. But the one that was perceived as probably the least serious was the most resonating for me. I knew nothing of the broken beat scene at the time and my knowledge is still limited, but I never took the album to be a truth and gospel account of the sound in the first place. I just took it as Madlib having fun and really pushing himself creatively. And that's exactly why it's stuck with me as long as it has. For this moment in time, Madlib stopped taking himself so seriously and just had fun programming crazy beats and looping familiar samples unfamiliarly off-beat. The best tracks were previewed on Stones Throw import 12" singles roughly a year before the album came out, but the songs fit right in and there were no complaints to be had on my end. I considered it (and still consider it) to be one of those unlikely, but rewarding, small-scale mini-masterpieces that only a few will truly take the time to fully investigate.

The Durutti Column — Tempus Fugit

After the full-on super produced sound of Someone Else's Party, Tempus Fugit was like an absolute retreat for Vini Reilly. It is a decidedly intimate affair that finds an unusual reliance on acoustic guitars in vocal tracks. But the album is pretty much the blueprint for where Vini would go for the next few years. The recurring lyrical themes, the feel of practiced urgency in the performances and the unrestrained openness in the presentation: it's all a recipe for magic. And while, with this album, he hadn't quite gotten the combination perfected, I like to think of the cover image as the perfect visual presentation for the album: it may not be pretty in the traditional sense, but there's something to be admired about such honest presentation.

Feist — Let it Die

Really, really hard to dislike this album. Even as much as I played it, I still have to marvel at the originals. Sure, there was an inordinate amount of covers, but the presentation was fantastic. And besides, the first five tracks make up arguably the strongest opening suite on any album released this decade. "Mushaboom" in particular is a classic for the ages and I still can't believe it's an original tune. Either Feist mined an extremely rare folk-rock 45 from 1971 and has been keeping a remarkable secret or she's that good of a songwriter. Wonderful stuff. Got to see her play a lot of this material in a tiny pub in Sparks (along with a good chunk of the Reminder roughly two years before it was released) and it confirmed for me that she was a special talent to keep an eye on.

Stephen Fretwell — Magpie

And it's a coincidence that I bring up that amazingly intimate Feist gig because the sole reason I even know who Stephen Fretwell is is because he was Feist's opener that night. I have no idea who's asinine idea it was to team up a folky Brit with a pseduo-funky Canadian, but I'm glad they did. I went out the very next day after seeing the gig and picked up Magpie and was a little stunned that I liked such a thing: a sort of modern day Bob Dylan, filtered through Thom Yorke's baritone voice and the Cure's best atmospheres. Very contempo singer songwriter-ish, but with material as good as Stephen Fretwell plays, the cliches are not applicable. Instead of being a walking cliche, he feels like the real thing: a guy who chain smokes and thinks too much, but also knows a few guitar chords. This album didn't blow me away off the bat, but it has grown to become a startlingly warm debut by a singer who just feels like he is destined for greatness, but, through the raspy vocals and melancholy hindsight view, never will achieve it. A hidden gem.

PJ Harvey — Uh Huh Her

I thought this album was so boring at first. Granted, I'm still not crazy about it in the grand scheme of PJH-ness, but it's grown on me. "Pocket Knife", sure that one rocks. "The Slow Drug", yeah that's meditative, post-bender moment of clarity PJH at her best. "It's You", ok, that one is just obsessive brilliance. Well, maybe it's not so bad after all...

PJ Harvey — B-Sides

And then she came out with this clearly great b-sides collection. Full disclosure: I actually liked this a lot more than Uh Huh Her. It was shorter and more concise than the record and it just rocked more without really caring. To me, it was PJ doing PJ. Repetitive as hell at that point, but who cared. Not me. [typical guy]Nice butt, PJ![/typical guy]

Karate — pockets

If I had known it would be their last album, I would have given it much more attention at the time. But nobody knew. It was just Karate's next album. And it was much more of a truly integrated indie rock record. There were actually hooks on this thing! And the tempos weren't sluggish, for the most part! Sure, it's easy to look back now and critique the living daylights out of it for being too short, too similar, too quickly direction changing, etcetera. But now? Listen to it, it will knock your socks off. Slow and longing like the best of their old material, chunked up guitar tone and newly discovered pop ambitions; it's all there. And plus, it has the song "Water", which is amazing by any measuring stick. Didn't see their breakup coming, but I'm glad their last album was a concise and undeniably strong one.

Morrissey — You Are the Quarry

Like all later day Morrissey output, it was overproduced as hell, but the songs were so good it didn't matter. Some rockers, some ballads, all worthwhile. It turned my world around for a good while, but I didn't really get it until roughly a year later. It rocked a lot more than I had anticipated, but deep down, didn't he always want to be Marc Bolan, anyway? Seriously satisfying as a comeback album.

The Ocean Blue — Waterworks EP

It literally made me laugh because it was so good. Two songs from longtime frontman David Schelzel and two (very Morrissey-esuqe) songs from bassist Oed Ronne (pronounced "Ed Rohnny"). To me, it felt like exactly the sort of music this band should've been creating at this point. Goddamn, I loved it. Still do, in fact. My only complaint: on the band's website, the description under this EP has said 'Prelude supreme' for —quite literally— several years. Where's the follow-up, guys? We clearly want it. Especially after this supreme teaser.

Q and Not U — Power

A good, if somewhat unrepresentative, swan song. Nobody knew it would their last album the time, but with songs like "Wonderful People", some folks were pissed at the seeming jump into synth-pop. It felt like a natural progression from where I was standing, as the band was post-punk revival in the first place so synth pop revival seemed the logical next step. "Book of Flags" is secretly their best song that's not named "Soft Pyramids." And then, nobody ever heard from one of the bands with the most unfulfilled potential of the entire decade.

The Roots — The Tipping Point

Wow, I hated this album even more than Phrenology at the time. Called 'em sellouts, in fact. Thought it was pure schlock. I based my thoughts on the very synthesized lead single "Don't Say Nuthin" and the Scott Storch second rate Neptunes ripoff production (which was so bad, I don't even remember the title). There were, however, three or four tunes that were arguably among the band's best (even to this day). The Sly and Family Stone cover/tribute "Star" was —and still is— so good, I get goosebumps. I listen to it rather frequently these days. Don't know what that means. I guess I like it after all.

William Shatner — Has Been

You know, the older I get, the more I realize, the true path to creative longevity is the ability to take yourself completely seriously, but be able to make fun of yourself at the same time. I can think of no better examples of this than this album. I'm being completely honest here. William Shatner (with some help from Ben Folds) made one of the decade's most honest and fun albums. I still have a hard time comprehending how something like "I Can't Get Behind That", "Together", "I'm Real" and "What Have You Done?" could coexist within the same 40-minute album so convincingly. But they did. And I love it.

Sonic Youth — Sonic Nurse

Probably the Youth's most emotionally taxing album. And I don't mean within any certain context. Just, overall. There's a seriously downtrodden, melancholy overtone to this album. Whether it's Kim's heartbreakers "Dude Ranch Nurse" or "I Love You Golden Blue", Thurston's stereotypically (in a good way) longing realizations "Unmade Bed" and "Peace Attack" or Lee's standard paranoid "Paper Cup Exit", the whole thing oozed over with a sense of unified sadness. But in the overthought Sonic Youth way. It's definitely the most low key and subtle affair of their catalogue. I really like this album a lot more as the years pass.

Trash Can Sinatras — Weightlifting

They came out of nowhere with one of the best stage shows anybody had seen in a while and one of the downright best British guitar albums anybody had heard in even longer. It was pure jangle heaven from a group of blokes that had more than earned their elder statesmen status by this point. Nothing even remotely bad to say about it whatsoever. Secretly their best album.

Trembling Blue Stars — The Seven Autumn Flowers

And more wimpy jangle to finish out the year from me. I read a few reviews of this album before I actually heard it and it was just more proof to me that music journalists these days aren't really concerned with quality music. Because really? This may not be my favorite album by the Stars, but damn, it's surely number two. Why doesn't anybody listen to this album? It's arguably their best! There's not really anything much else to say besides a mention for "The Sea is So Quiet" which is one of Bob's best songs ever. Oh, it's also got "Hellen Reddy" on it, too. Yeah, it's that good. It came out in a year when Morrissey and the Cure made pseudo-comebacks and was better than both of them. By far. Hard to think they'd do even better.

I'll be getting around to wrapping this up fairly soon.