Sunday, December 29, 2013

What's New?: 12.29.2013

A guy named LEONARD:
Leo Kottke — Circle 'Round the Sun (1970)

Leo's third album and the one right before he jumped up to the major labels.  It's almost all original vocal songs and almost all of those are more on the whimsical side of Leo's personality.  When the album takes on a more somber tone is where I really get into it.  'So Cold in China' begins a trilogy of ballads on the second half of this album that really digs down deep and gets to the core of Leo's appeal for me.  The original version of  'Easter and the Sargasso Sea' appears here (its title was trimmed down to just 'Easter' a few years later on Leo's first live album) and is followed by the meditative, Nick Drake-ish 'Prodigal Grave.'  The album is good, but those three songs are quintessential Leo.  Unfortunately, the album has never been reissued and has never appeared on CD.

Leo Kottke — self-titled (1976)

Leo's first post-Capitol album finds him in instrumental territory that's a bit more polished.  Jack Nitzsche actually gets an arrangement credit here and while not all the tunes are as lush and ambitious as something like 'Range', the album certainly does sound like it had a bigger budget than any of Leo's previous albums.  There's a more somber note on some tunes like 'The White Ape' and 'Maroon' (dig that harp!) and that's where the bigger arrangements shine.  Leo's also playing through more effects than ever before, so without the statement of any real memorable themes, it gets by more on mood than actual tunes.  But that mood is a very happy, playful and content one, for the most part (see the multi-movement groover 'Death by Reputation' for the most obvious example).  I guess there are some group of fans that feel like the slicker, bigger presentation ruins this album, but, I don't know, on tunes like the closer 'Shadowland', I can see the validity both in the album version and Leo's solo version played live.  Still, for one of Leo's all instrumental albums, I'd definitely say it's a representative one and one of his most easily likeable overall.

Leo Kottke — Burnt Lips (1978)

Seriously bad cover, Leo.  But, I guess he has his share of unflattering album artwork.  It's much more sparse than his previous album.  The overdubbed guitars on a killer rendition of 'Cool Water' are about as produced as this one gets.  There is a more pronounced sense of melancholy here that is enhanced by the setting of just Leo and his guitar.  It's almost split down the middle between vocal and instrumental tunes, but Leo pops up singing a couple times on side two.  Tunes like 'The Credits: Out-Takes from Terry's Movies' and especially 'Everybody Lies' push this album into a decidedly more somber territory than Leo had been covering for his previous few albums, but they are certainly winners.  It's also a much longer album than his previous two albums, suggesting that he put his whole heart into this one, and that really shows.  This one's definitely the one to go for in his late 70's output.

Leo Kottke — Balance (1979)

This is much more produced and much slicker than anything Leo had done previously.  The whole album has a full band of studio musicians backing Leo, playing a very fluffy country-infused soft rock.  The implied rockabilly on the instrumental 'Whine' is nice, however, and so is the layered riffing on 'Dolores.'  But, for the most part, you're in for super slick soft rock cheese like 'Losing Everything' and 'Tell Mary' that does Leo no favors.  The presentation might be overcome if the tunes were better, but they just aren't.  The sleeve note by Leo is perhaps most telling: amidst a dense christmas metaphor, he tells of how depressed he is.  And then, wouldn't you know, he makes mostly lifeless music.  Some decent stuff to pick out of the muck, but yeah: probably his worst album at this point. 

Leo Kottke — Time Step (1983)

Leo steppin' into the 80's in a still kind of cheesy soft rock groove.  Production is just as unnecessarily flashy as before, but the tunes are a bit better this time out; some of it recalling Neil Young's twangier stuff of the time (Emnmylou Harris on background vocals on a few songs certainly only enhances the comparison).  It's definitely Leo's most overtly country album.  It does have kind of a weirdo "outsider" vibe that a lot of early 80's non-punk guitar-based music has — like this hick has no business doing anything around this high tech recording equipment.  I don't hate it, but T-Bone Burnett's production just doesn't suit Leo very well.  Some good ones to consider: the instrumental 'Mr. Fonebone' and the Kris Kristofferson cover 'Here Comes that Rainbow Again.'

Leo Kottke — A Shout Toward Noon (1986)

Surprisingly good, despite the completely unnecessary synthesizers that pop up sporadically.  The extra break and label switch probably had a lot to with the upswing in quality here.  It's an all instrumental album that consistently reaches into an emotional territory that was sparsely heard on any of Leo's previous albums.  Check out the closer 'Ice Field' for the album highlight.  He digs up 'Easter and the Sargasso Sea' again and titles it, predictably, 'Easter Again' and the tune fits in extremely well here.  Lotta folks considered this mellowing out to be Leo finally settling into the new age section, but I dunno.  He seemed to me to play pretty consistently with this introspective tone the entire time, the tempos here are just a lot slower, so inwardly gazing melodies have more time to sink in, I reckon.  This started a long run for Leo on the Private Music label, which I think was a little more empathetic towards Leo's presentation of his music, which is why the more sparse presentation works wonders.

Leo Kottke — My Father's Face (1989)

Leo going strong.  I'm missing Regards from Chuck Pink which was released right before this one in the middle of this strong late 80's run.  This one's a bit more jaunty and high spirited and the vocal numbers go back to Leo's more whimsical side (the marimba and accordion laden 'Why Can't You Fix My Car?' is almost like a less dissonant Captain Beefheart, if you can believe that).  Though he does revisit 'Everybody Lies' here and manages to present the definitive version of the tune.  Whoo boy, you know the deal.  T-Bone Burnett is back on production, but he keeps things very classy and sparse.  There's a bit of hand percussion and some complimenting keyboards, but overall, you couldn't call this album overproduced in even the loosest definition of the word.  There's another revisit of an even older tune on the album's second half with  'Mona Ray' and it's a more spacious duet take on the tune; another winner.  The album closes strong with the thoughtful instrumental 'Doorbell' and it's a bit surprising that Leo was this late into the game knocking out such wonderful albums.  A very mature and wondrous album, but not without that classic sense of humor.

Leo Kottke — That's What (1990)

Weird to think the music I was into when this album was new.  Funny how time can do that to you.  A mere twenty years passes you by and your thoughts about everything have shifted so drastically, yet so fluidly that things sync up in very strange ways.  Leo had advanced so far from his initial approach to making music in 1970 that, when you hear 'Buzzby' for the first time —and after digesting Leo's near-complete catalogue— it seems like the perfect sort of weird pop that Leo should be making twenty years on from 6 and 12 String Guitar.  And it's exceptionally rewarding to hear him arrive at such an artistic peak so late in the game.  The album is decidedly more jazzy than anything Leo had done previously.  Something like 'What the Arm Said', for instance, is a genuinely new sound for Leo.  The addition of Billy Peterson's electric or acoustic bass on most of the tracks really ups the jazzy atmosphere, but there is a distinctly unique feeling to this album that sits outside jazz and folk completely.  It's not new agey, because it's far too intellectually grounded for that.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but the tune 'Mid Air' really illustrates this feeling perfectly.  It's nearly classical in its scope, but it feels at least partly improvised.  I mean hell, the subtle horn arrangement on the Carla Bley cover 'Jesus Maria' has shades of David Axelrod in it!  Really wish there were some readily available clips so you'd have an idea of what I'm trying to get, instead of fumbling around these airy-fairy keyboard farts I'm throwing at you.  But shucks, these Private discs aren't even on YouTube for the most part (but this one is on Spotify).  Oh well.  You'll just have to arrive here on your own, like I did.  Hopefully, it won't take you twenty years.


Monday, December 23, 2013

What's New?: 12.23.2013

Hey, as you may have noticed, the installments of WN? have been skimpy in this second half of 2013 (just looking now, the last one I did was in freakin' July — early July, at that).  You might be guessing that's because I haven't bought any records — which is definitely not the case.  I've been accumulating quite a bit, but to spare you the tedious details, I've had things that have kept me from writing all that much.  It's not that I haven't wanted to, I just haven't been able to for whatever reason.  So, as I tend to do, I went on many tangents with my interests and gorged on certain bands, artists and styles.  Because I have a large enough backlog of things to discuss (all of which I definitely want to get to), I've decided to go forth with WN? not in the chronological order of how I acquired things (which is always how it's been done up until this point), but by grouping things together by artist, affiliations or similar styles.  This is how things will go at least until I catch up.

So, back to business, let's start with a guy named AARON:
Elvis Presley — How Great Thou Art (1967)

This album was recorded right before Elvis tried to stage a full on comeback and throw in his bid to be considered a serious musician again. It's alright. I'm the last person to even pretend I like religious music (well, intentionally religious music, I should say), so my main interest in this album comes from Elvis' career trajectory.  I think I'm at a point where I've heard just about enough about the "important" psychedelic music of the late 60's to where I find a bit more meaning in the stuff that's not really retroactively "cool."  What was Elvis doing?  He was in a completely different mindset (the pop charts will do that to you).  Musically, if you can listen past the religiousness of this album (which I can, sometimes), it's definitely got a great orchestral pop sound to it. Sure, it's a bit cheesy in retrospect, but so is just about everything Elvis did.  At least it's well-intentioned and executed cheese.  This album came after a long run of mostly forgettable soundtracks to mostly forgettable movies, so maybe Elvis was glad to be doing something —anything— different with this one.  Because at least he sounds inspired in spots.  Do I listen to this album a lot?  No.  But I certainly don't mind it when I put it on.  As a listening experience, it leaves something to be desired, but as turning point in Elvis' career, it's far more interesting past being just an album of religious songs.

Elvis Presley — Elvis at Sun (mid 1950's)

It's easy to overlook these recordings in the bigger scheme of things, but it's impossible to overstate their importance. You can get into as many "he stole it!" discussions as you like, but the only thing that remains constant is that the man knew how to sing a damn song. Time has revealed that there were probably better rockabilly recordings made, but if you want that big reverby sound and that classic slapback bass, there's not much better than something like 'Blue Moon of Kentucky.' I think, more than anything, as many times as I've heard these songs, I don't think I ever noticed just how prevalent and how good the ballads are.  None of this is more evident than on the excellent rendition of 'Blue Moon.'  This disc isn't everything Elvis recorded for Sun, but for a cheap, one stop shop, you can't do much better.

Elvis Presley — self-titled (1956)

These Legacy editions actually combine two albums into one package: the album that's being advertised and material recorded either during the same sessions or surrounding sessions.  The album that accompanies Elvis' first self-titled RCA album is the album simply titled Elvis from the following year (but which was recorded during many of the same sessions).  The indisputable classics here are so plentiful, you can't count them on one hand: 'Blue Suede Shoes,' 'Blue Moon,' 'Heartbreak Hotel,' 'Tutti Frutti,' 'Don't be Cruel' and 'Hound Dog,' just to name some.  It's kind of nice to go back to these early albums and see how relatively tame they are in retrospect.  And, you know, like I said up there, the ballads are really killer.  Elvis' early stuff wasn't really popular for ballads, so the ones that are spread across these two discs have a bit of unfamiliarity for me, which really makes them stick out.  Check out 'First in Line' and 'Any Way You Want Me.'  Otherwise, the two albums and surrounding material on these two discs are definitely of historic importance, but more than anything else, they're very easy listening.  I'll put one on while I'm making dinner or just wanting to jam along with something on guitar and before I know it, I've listened to the whole thing.  Something to be said about that.

Elvis Presley — Elvis is Back! (early 1960's)

The title on this one is a reference to Elvis' stint in the army.  The music is still pretty consistent, but this is considered to be the last thoroughly good album Elvis would do for the next six or seven years.  Most of the songs here feature a much slicker presentation, there's a whole lot more ballads and the Jordanaires are backing Elvis up on just about every track, so they had definitely found the formula that worked, but the results aren't quite as interesting.  Still, this does have one of the best songs ever on it and it's exactly in that mode, so it's not all bad.  The companion album included in this Legacy package is 1961's Something for Everyone and that's a seeming reference to how the album is divided into two sides: the first half is more pop ballad driven, while the second half is more on the rockin' side of things.  There were practically no big hits on this album, so the unfamiliarity of the material is the big draw for me.  Check out 'Put the Blame on Me' and the rocker 'Little Sister' for some pretty badass tunes that have gone nearly unnoticed for anyone except Elvis diehards.  As an overview of what Elvis was up to in the early 60's, it's pretty thorough in presenting the good side of the picture.  Unfortunately, he would get stuck in the cycle of making movies and having maybe one good song to build a soundtrack album around for the next several years.

Elvis Presley — Loving You (1957)

Elvis' first movie soundtrack was recorded when he was still working with a wealth of great material and, indeed, most of the material here isn't actually from the movie.  Some really killer stuff though: 'Lonesome Cowboy' finds the Jordanaires being used to their maximum potential, while 'Mean Woman Blues' is about as rockin' as this album gets (still a great tune).  This one's a little up and down, but it does have quite a few easy-to-like blues rockers like 'Blueberry Hill' so no real complaints.  Falls right in with the first two RCA albums in terms of sound and production, so a lot of the material gets by just on the classic presentation, not necessarily its strength.

Elvis Presley — From Elvis in Memphis (1969)

This is the famous comeback album, where Elvis finally branched out beyond his inner circle of songwriters and musicians (a circle that existed to keep publishing money close — most of the publishing on this album did not come back to that inner circle).  The change to outside folks does wonders and really shows how good Elvis could be with the right material.  The sound the music takes on is a sort of countrified pop soul — the type that Memphis was pumping out rapid fire in those days.  Of course Elvis was more of a country boy by this point, so to have him belting it out like a country crooner while the band is firmly planted in r+b (with a slight twang) really makes for some unique moments.  Check out 'Long Black Limousine' for a pretty hip tune.  The companion album on this one is Elvis Back in Memphis from the same year.  Both albums actually came from the same sessions, so this two disc document is pretty invaluable.  And the important thing here is worth repeating: putting Elvis with different songwriters did wonders for his music career.  There's a ton of hits throughout these two discs: 'Suspicious Minds', 'In the Ghetto', 'Gentle on My Mind' (my personal favorite) and 'Rubberneckin'.'  Hits or no, this is fantastic music and there's plenty of lesser-known songs like 'Kentucky Rain' that keep me coming back to this set.  Probably my favorite Elvis stuff, when it's all said and done.

Elvis Presley — Elvis Country (1971)

And, as the title indicates, Elvis goes full on pop country for these sessions (which were indeed cut in Nashville). Or, that was the intention anyway. It actually sounds like a more fully produced continuation of the pop/rockabilly sound Elvis was doing about ten years previous. The original twelve song album Elvis Country is here at the start of disc one and pieces of the excellent non-album single 'I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago' are spliced in between the proper songs and it creates a really effective atmosphere for the album.  The thing here is that the music's presentation is very slick and overproduced.  So, yeah, it's pretty cheesy.  But, it's good cheese because Elvis completely means it.  Some good tunes from the album are 'I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water', 'Funny How Time Slips Away' (dobro solo!) and 'Make the World Go Away' (which is the sort of over-saturated Elvis sound that would become cliched within a year of this album — this is a good one, though).  The companion album recorded during the same sessions is Love Letters From Elvis and while it doesn't hold together as well as disc one, it's still got a bunch of great tunes: the pop soul of 'If I Were You' and the lush ballad 'I'll Never Know' are clear highlights.  These sessions were pretty much Elvis' last artistic hurrah.  He fell back into the cycle of performing second and third rate material to keep his publishing money close and basically got lazy.  The cool thing about this particular period of Elvis was his super schmaltzy live show.  He would do these ridiculous onstage movements and the band would have to follow along and accentuate his antics and he would direct the band to do things just because he could — but if you watch any footage of him performing during this period, you have to marvel at how good the bands he was working with actually were to be able to entertain his shenanigans.  And Elvis, even when he's singing songs he knows are crap, is always at least having fun.  And that counts for something, I suppose.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Show Reviews: Andrew Bird Gezelligheid and King Krule in San Francisco

I'd not been to a single live show this year until last week.  It was a plan that had been made for at least two months in advance and it was a devious one, indeed.  Andrew Bird one night, King Krule the next.  It seemed almost too good to be true that such a coincidence was occurring, but alas, here I am a few days later and still basking in the wonderfulness I experienced. 

Staying in SF, just blocks away from the synagogue where Andrew Bird was playing, I did not mind getting away from the freezing temperatures of Reno and into the Bay Area's downright hot by comparison low 60's temperatures.  This meant, basically, a lot of walking.  And, inevitably, you see some street names in SF that are funny in one way or another.  Although it's mostly an alley now, this one was rather amusing to me for obvious reasons:
Earlier in the day, we made the walk over to Haight-Ashbury and hit Amoeba.  They now advertise their prowess in their video stock, unfortunately:
I was on a budget, so I shopped wisely and picked up mostly hole fillers for my collection:
(I'll get to them at a later date, but I will say right now that Amoeba's prices on used items have gone up in the last few years, but if you know what you're shopping for, the place still remains an absolute dream of a record store for nerds like me)

As I mentioned, Andrew Bird was playing the Sherith Israel synagogue.  A venue presumably picked for its acoustics and certainly did not disappoint in that regard.  It's an absolutely beautiful piece of architecture and the time spent waiting for the show to begin passed quickly, just admiring the gorgeous attention to detail throughout the place:

The before show house system played a strange, but somehow fitting combination of crackling Carter Family songs and newer solo instrumental guitar work by the likes Bert Jansch (among others).  Andrew played essentially alone, although he was joined by a bassist (whose name I unfortunately did not catch) and Tift Merritt later in the set (and boy did their harmonies sound great!).  He played two sets that lasted about fourty minutes a piece and there wasn't much stage banter or song title announcements.  He started out with one of the instrumental songs from his newest I Want to See Pulaski at Night EP (and then closed the first set with the title track from that EP) and then played a combination of older songs ('Dear Old Greenland'!!), a few from Break it Yourself and a handful of cover tunes, by both contemporary and classic sources.  All of the older material received slight arrangement adjustments and tweaks that made them sound as fresh as ever, and somehow right at home in between the cover tunes.  The show was billed as "Gezelligheid" (pronounced "gah-zell-ig-hide) and the word is supposed to mean something like a relaxed atmosphere.  In that regard, Andrew definitely succeeded.  He closed with the old standy 'Weather Systems' and I have to say, of the three times I've seen him, he's played it every single time and this one was the best.  There were numerous instances where he seemed to change the words to a song because he could, made mistakes that would have gone unnoticed by anyone who didn't already know the song extremely well and, through most of the show, it felt like he was up there letting the audience in on a rehearsal.  Now, when you're as good as Andrew Bird is at what he does, this is the highest compliment that can be paid.  Because he was completely on that night.  It just cemented to me that he is absolutely one of the best musicians on the planet and even when he's basically up there screwing around, he still manages to make completely unique and beautiful music.

Tuesday was, for me, the main event: King Krule at the Independent over on Divisadero.  I'd never been there before, but I was extremely excited upon entering the place and seeing it was only about a four or five hundred capacity room.  This meant any spot in the place could be a good one.  Well, I don't want to brag, but we may have managed to get the best spot in the house:
The opener was Tops (no really, that's their name).  I thought they were okay.  Angel III thought they were good, just based on how much fun they were clearly having up there.  When Archy took the stage around 9.30, I was shaking in anticipation.  Amidst dark blue lights, he launched into 'Has this Hit?' and it wasn't until the second half of the song and Archy burst into his rapping over that irresistible faux-rockabilly riff that it struck me: this is happening.  This is real.  It seemed totally surreal up until that point.  Before I knew it, he was rapping the words at me as I was rapping them right back at him.  The rest of the set just blew me completely and totally away.  His band was completely ace, and through a setlist that included a lot of 6 Feet material, sprinkled with past favorites, something occurred to me that I never thought I would say: the arrangements on 6 Feet Beneath the Moon actually hinder his presentation as a performer.  Good as the album is (and, to be sure, it's my favorite album of at least the last two years), the songs as they were played live in a more sparse, four piece band presentation hit harder and have more immediacy than on the record.  The entire set was full of energy and in the moment beauty that can only lead me to suggest that a live album is not only advisable, but necessary at this point.  The rawked up, "Fuck you, I'm punk as fuck!" run-throughs of 'A Lizard State', 'Rock Bottom' and 'Easy Easy' (with the obligatory audience singalong, no less) were bubbling over with intensity and properly controlled anger, while slower, meditative renditions of 'The Krockadile', 'Baby Blue' and 'The Noose of Jah City' ventured off into six and seven minute lengths that left goosebumps crawling all over me.  The proper set closer 'Out Getting Ribs' was not only a guitar playing clinic (less than five feet in front of my face, no less), it was the highlight of the evening (among many).  A one song encore of 'Portrait in Black and Blue' and a short handshake with the man left me with tears of joy welling up in my eyes.  There is so much contradiction in his music that having such overwhelming feelings of sureness that he is the future of music is definitely confusing.  I may make silly overbearing statements like that, but after seeing him with my own eyes, I can say one thing definitively: he is the real deal.  He is the absolute embodiment of creativity and talent. 

All that, and he totally does a "I don't care if there's people watching me" dance while he plays:
A wonderful way to end out the year.


Friday, December 20, 2013

Download my Favorites of 2013 mix.

When I did my Favorites of 2013 mix, I was having stereo issues and was not comfortable playing vinyl, so I basically just copied and pasted mp3 files into a wav editor.  This new version is 95% sourced from vinyl (and the songs that are not from vinyl are from official CDs) and I was in complete control of everything.  I know it's much easier to stream these days, but this is the definitive version of the mix and the way it was intended to be heard all along.  320kbps mp3, done in one take.  Straight from the vinyl (and, in a couple cases, the CD) to your ears.

Download here.

Full tracklist and info here.



Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Favorites of 2013

Here's a mix that contains all my most favorite music released in the twelve months since I did my last mix of a similar nature.  This has been one of the best years for new music in quite some time.

1)  King Krule — Easy Easy
2)  My Bloody Valentine — she found now
3)  The Ocean Blue — Sad Night, Where is Morning?
4)  ChameleonsVox — Heaven
5)  The Appleseed Cast — Cathedral Rings
6)  Atoms for Peace — Before Your Very Eyes. . .
7)  Sigur Rós — Ísjaki
8)  Juana Molina — El Oso de la Guarda
9)  King Krule — Foreign 2
10)  Kitchens of Distinction — Photographing Rain
11)  Sam Prekop — Pavillion 15
12)  The Ocean Blue — Fast Forward Reverse (prelude)
13)  The Ocean Blue — Fast Forward Reverse
14)  My Bloody Valentine — new you
15)  Travis — Reminder
16)  Andrew Bird — Pulaski at Night
17)  Mazzy Star — California
18)  William Tyler — Country of Illusion
19)  Shuggie Otis —Black Belt Sheriff
20)  King Krule — The Krockadile
21)  William Tyler — The World Set Free

 If you're goin' through hell, we just keep goin'.


Monday, October 28, 2013

A Solbakken starter mix.

I was going to try and do an "In a Nutshell" post for Solbakken, but it would have been a difficult read for pretty much anyone except its author.  All five star ratings and impenetrable tangents of adjectives trying to convey just what it is that I love about them so dearly.  So, here, I will try to put the aborted "In a Nutshell" in its own nutshell: they are dark, noisy, sometimes too slow to bare, catchy, complicated, heartfelt, sometimes too fast to bare, passionate and they sing about isolated, yet inexplicably human things.  They are one of the most perfect bands to listen to in winter (maybe because their music is so warm, humane and coldly comforting — I don't know, honestly).  I have discussed them and my history with them here and here and now that I've finally reacquired their full catalogue (for a second time!), I've decided to ditch the words and let the music do the talking.  One of the best bands ever.  Just wish more people knew who they were.  In an effort to spread the word, here's my own version of the Best of Solbakken.




Solbakken has been dormant (and presumably broken up) for almost a decade now. I've only been able to keep up with guitarist Empee Holwerda's post-Solbakken band Kanipchen-Fit (and it's very good, very Solbakken-ish). Their albums are exceedingly difficult to find, so this mix was partially made to provide a listening party for those who are unable to obtain them.

Enjoy. I certainly do.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The American Analog Set in a nutshell.

I did a post a while back wherein I summed up the R.E.M. catalog in a few paragraphs (or at least the part that matters to me).  It remains one of the most read posts on this blog.  So, as the feeling hits me, I plan on reviving the "in a nutshell" idea where I'll just run down a band's output and point out the stuff that matters (again, to me — and, subsequently, like minded listeners).  So, here's part two in the series (is it officially a series now?).

The American Analog Set was America's greatest band that no one cared about in the mid and late 90's (sorry, Wilco, but you got redemption eventually).  Establishing their cult through Austin, Texas (and the instant credibility of the Emperor Jones label), the AmAnSet (as they lovingly became known) drifted by over the course of about a decade with generally favorable reviews and limited reception but nobody ever really got that excited about them because the music they created was so subtle and calm (and the revolving door cast of musicians —and subsequent lack of any sort of detail on the band's sleeve notes— certainly didn't help).  It's very easy now to hear them and say something accurate like, "It's like if Stereolab only did top tier songs all the time" or, "It's like all of their songs are variations of Radiohead's 'Street Spirit' on a smaller budget."  Just imagine the beautiful Soundgasm™ that would've resulted had they joined forces with like-minded peers the Sea and Cake.  So, let's go back to a strange and wonderful time when drop D power chords and meandering post-Kurt Cobain grunge dominated the airwaves.  And yet, here were these mellow Texas kids playing what was essentially shoegaze, only at reasonable volumes, who were led by a singer that preferred to whisper (or stand at least five feet away from the mic).  Yes, welcome back to the 90's.

The Fun of Watching Fireworks (1996)
To describe this band as "low key" or "subtle" just seems cheap. That's like calling Bill Evans' music "pretty" or Sonic Youth's music "loud." When that's what the entire manifesto of what the band is about, if you're first reaction is to call them "subtle", I think it's safe to say that you missed the point. An obsession with distance and a healthy dose of echo on the keyboards helps make the band's first statement nearly their definitive one. Beginning with one of the greatest side one/track ones ever, 'Diana Slowburner II' (part one has never been released — if it even exists, that is), should lull any astute listener into a near trance by ninety seconds in. And that's the game that is to be played here: repetition. The majority of the album's nine songs are six minutes or longer and the majority of that time is spent purely on repeating grooves. Are there any great pop songs here? In all honesty. . . no. This is like the most listenable fringe music you'll ever hear. The closest things come to accessible is the spaciously catchy 'Gone to Earth' but even that begins with a two minute instrumental vamp that has nothing else to do with the proper song.  So, yeah.  Want big pop hooks and endlessly catchy riffs?  Nothing here for you.  But, if you want just sheer impressions of dreamy sound, there's lots of that.  In the bigger picture, it's obviously just a warm up lap.  But the good tracks are among the band's best.  Highlight: like all good punk-minded bands, the AmAnSet began their first album with a side one/track one that's arguably their definitive tune with 'Diana Slowburner II.'  Love that elliptical riff.  Just wonderful.

From Our Living Room To Yours (1997)
The title is an allusion to the band's method of recording. And, while this one was recorded partially during the same sessions that yielded their first album, there seems to be a better overall assertion of purpose here. There's more variety, more thoughtful use of the songs' lengthy running times and, overall, just more consistency. The band, for the first time, feels completely right under (lead singer and main critical force) Andrew Kenny's direction. The way this album starts is just genius, with its hip hop-sized ego: a piece of dialogue sampled from who-knows-where declares, "We provide the fireworks, you provide the 'Ooooohh's and 'Aaaaahh's." And, bam, the super tight brush-stroked beat of 'Magnificent Seventies' hits you like you were supposed to know it was coming all along. That is how you start an album. When the sounds of sampled fireworks exploding finishes out the nine-minute opener, you know this is gonna be a really good one. And I should say right now: this one's heavier reliance on a definitively stated backbeat (no matter how lowly the drumkit is actually mixed in) is where it succeeds. Even the last three tracks (which are very deep "mood piece" type cuts, to be absolutely sure) remain their own distinct entities because of the more pronounced big(-ish?) beat. The band's first real pop song (use your imagination) is included with 'Where Have All The Good Boys Gone' and that Slowdive-esque ending is just killer, isn't it? Consistency, here we come! Highlight: the delicious Kraut-pop of 'Magnificent Seventies'; though closer 'Don't Wake Me' is not only like a more acoustic-y Joy Division-meets-Codeine, it also sets the scene for the band's somber masterpiece of a follow up.

bliss out v.9 (1997)
Part of the wonderful Darla label's "bliss out" series, it was the AmAnSet's first appearance away from their local Emperor Jones label. It's just two long tracks —the catchy Kraut-pop™ vamp-with-narrations 'Late One Sunday' and the seeming intended-for-meditation repetitious synth of 'The Following Morning'— that are very nice, but really just a nicely included subplot to our main story. Highlight: if you like one, you like the other.

The Golden Band (1998)
If the band has one big defining longform statement, this is it. This is that album that is not bound by any one or two hugely popular songs, but instead, sounds incomplete when not played front to back. This is the Astral Weeks of the 90's. It is about Andrew Kenny's growing up in, and coming to grips with the fickle nature of, for lack of better terminology, "the scene." It is romanticizing of the past, bitter about the present and hopeful about the future. Even though most of his work before this album and since then arrives at much more obtuse observations, this album is precise and poignant, like this was the record he intended to make the first time around. Rookie mistakes are now corrected (splitting 'New Drifters' up into four more easily digestible pieces is a fantastic executive decision). The way the band has developed so slightly, but so effectively, is heard on songs like the jangly 'It's All About Us', the incredible centerpiece 'The Wait' or the time signature trickery of 'I Must Soon Quit the Scene' is not immediately noticeable, but it will definitely become apparent on second or third listen. Intensely personal and just wonderfully catchy, this is the band's best. Highlight: the dreamy vibes on 'I Must Soon Quit the Scene.'

Through the 90's: Singles and Unreleased (1995-1999)
Figures that this band would release singles like they actually meant to get on the pop charts all along. This album is very unfairly named, as it contains 90% exclusive to this disc material. Sure, there's songs you've heard before, but the shorter takes on tunes like 'It's All About Us' are not only alternate recordings, they provide a fascinating peek at the band's process. And besides, it shows the band in full on hypocrite mode, managing an even spacier 'Diana Slowburner II' (seriously, why was this the single version?).  Otherwise, there's so much non-album material, it's pretty much like its own album. It wasn't intended to be a proper album, so it lacks on the sequencing and consistency, but all of the non-album material and especially the live recordings (which find the band in totally flawless form) make it absolutely essential for fans. Highlight: very tempting to say the Dr. Pepper jingle, but really, 'The Only Living Boy Around.'

Know By Heart (2001)
A long break between albums (three years, in fact, and the longest ever for the band) and label a switch and they came back with a streamlined version of their own sound. The kickoff tune 'Punk As Fuck' may have an attention grabbing title, but the actual tune is simple and effective, using a heavier reliance on vibraphone. There's a previously unnoticed new wave influence in tunes like 'Like Foxes Through Fences' or 'The Kindness of Strangers' (replace the vibes with early 80's synths and this is basically an Orange Juice song — I can't be the only one that hears this!). Meanwhile, 'Choir Vandals' is the sort of song that's so different and so good, you just have to wonder why it took someone so long to write it. There's a great revive of the meat portion of 'Gone to Earth' which just exemplifies how tight the band had gotten in the interim. The album closer 'We're Computerizing and We Just Don't Need You' points the band straight back into Golden Band territory, and boy, what a fine way to spend fourty minutes. Ben Gibbard's all over it (he was an unofficial member for a while there). It's really good; probably should be the second album you get into, unless it was your first. Highlight: 'Choir Vandals.' Fake neo-soul. Hell yeah.

Promise of Love (2003)
This album reminds me of the Feelies. It's rocked up for these guys, but, as always with a very serious consideration for layers of clean-toned guitar. It's definitely their most abrasive album (if you can even legitimately apply a word like "abrasive" to this band). Check out the uber-psychedelic opener 'Continuous Hit Music' and just marvel at how good the band had gotten at its "thing" by this point (a revive of the presumed demo of the tune as a hidden bonus track at the end of the album is definitely a welcome surprise). I don't love it like I do all of their other albums, but it's definitely the rawer, rougher "evil twin" (if you will) of Know by Heart, so that in itself, is fun. Highlight: 'Come Baby Julie, Come Home' for the gorgeous second half of the tune.

Home, Vol. 5 (2004)
A wonderful little side-thingy from the equally as wonderful Post-Parlo records series that finds the second half highlighting Andrew's acoustic solo recordings. The first half is Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie and his half is good (he covers 'Choir Vandals' and it's good!).  Andrew's half features three songs, which at the time were new, and a cover of Death Cab's 'Line of Best Fit.'  Definitely worth it for 'Church Mouse in the Church House', which is surprisingly haunting and atmospheric for just a plaintive acoustic tune.  The whole thing's just straight, no nonsense acoustic guy strumming and it should go without saying that if you're even a casual fan of either of these guys, it's a must hear.  Highlight: 'Church Mouse' obviously.

Set Free (2005)
And finally jumping over to the Canadian Arts and Crafts label for their swan song. This album not only begins with one of the band's best tunes ever in 'Born on the Cusp' (I'd say top five, easily), it wraps things up nicely.  They finally stopped fiddling about and paid proper tribute to Codeine, one of their biggest influences, on the fantastically buzzing cover of 'JR.'  They had finally recorded a full band record in a proper studio and streamlined their songs into proper three or four minute pop masterworks.  This is especially evident as four of the album's tracks ('First of Four', 'Cool Kids Keep', 'Everything Ends' and 'Green Green Grass'), all of which clocked in at three minutes or less, were featured in much longer versions (seven and eight minutes) on their respective singles.  They had perfected what they did.  It needed to end, because there was nowhere else to go.  You can only repeat yourself so many times before it becomes mundane and the trick (however great it may be) starts to lose its lustre.  Andrew Kenny is a very smart man and obviously recognized this.  The band dissolved without much fanfare and Andrew resurfaced about five years later with the more acoustic-based Wooden Birds.  That's a good story, too.  But not one to be told right now.  Highlight: 'Born on the Cusp' which is not only catchy as hell, it's a helluva lot of fun to play for yourself.  Try it!

Hard to Find: Singles and Unreleased 2000-2005 (2009)
This puts the bow on the package that Set Free wrapped. And it's a big, colorful, understated bow. Unfortunately a digital-only release, if nothing else, it's worth it for the brilliant full version and band apex of 'Everything Ends in Spring.' It almost feels like that song is what they were working towards the entire time and they called it quits not long afterwords because they knew they could never top it. It's one of my favorite songs of all time and it makes me boogie. A few demos and some non-album stuff and this package is a perfect top-off to one of the most impressive runs in modern rock music. I can't recommend it enough. Highlight: 'Everything Ends' because the bassline is a killer too.

And yeah, Andrew then rebooted himself into Wooden Birds around the same time and got comfortable. Behind himself, he left the AmAnSet discography, fragmented, sidebar-filled and absolutely top gear the whole way through. Not really gone long enough to achieve revival popularity and not popular enough the first time around to stay on most folks' minds, their catalogue has sadly drifted out of print for the most part. But, jeez oh man, is it worth a revisit. The band is one of my all time favorites if for no other reason than what they didn't do: they never played anything when it wasn't completely necessary. Theirs is a music full of space and quiet moments. Contrarily easy to know what to expect from them — yet they were never short on surprises. The sheer audacity of a band to play shoegaze at quiet volumes is enough to get me on their side initially, but throw in absolutely top tunes throughout and you get one of the greatest nearly forgotten pop bands ever. May they play as quietly as they want for all time.