Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Dutchess & The Duke "She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke" (2008)

Why is it that every band who says they're influenced by the Stones references Exile or Sticky Fingers?  The Dutchess & the Duke reference the Stones from an earlier time.  Subtle hints towards psychedelia or blues, but this is more "Mother's Little Helper" than "Rocks Off".  Simply played with ragged but right harmonies, this is good stuff.  And like those old records, this one clocks in at just over 30 minutes, so it doesn't overstay it's welcome.

Drakkar Sauna "Drakkansasauna" (2005)

Have you ever gone with a friend to a party where everyone else has known each other for many years?  And they all seem to think that they are all hilarious & fabulous, but to any outsider they're just odd & slightly irritating?  Sure, if you had gone to grade school with these people you might understand the jokes, but no other people on earth would understand.

That's what listening to this record feels like.  Sure, if I put in the time & work I might love it.  But there's nothing to pull me in, & persuade me that it's worth the effort.

Bonnie Prince Billy "The Letting Go" (2006)

One of the hardest things any artist can do is to find his or her own voice.  It's comparatively easy to do work in the style of someone else.  Yet how many people can produce works that clearly couldn't have been produced by anyone else?  Will Oldham seems to be one of the few contemporary musicians who has found his voice, and is completely comfortable with it.

This isn't the best album under the Bonnie Prince Billy nom de rock, but when it works, it is sublime.  Simple songs about the quiet pleasures of domestic life.  A real gem.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sam Bush "King of My World" (2004)

Sammy just keeps on going, playing his own brand of music.  It's rooted in bluegrass, but he's not afraid to experiment with reggae, rock, & whatever else strikes his fancy.  That eclecticism can make for uneven recordings, but when it works, it works.  This is one of the better ones.  High points include "Eight More Miles to Louisville" & "A Better Man".

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sonic Youth, "Daydream Nation" (1988)

The 80s were a strange time.  Corporate culture was giving us images of happy shiny people with big hair & dubious fashion choices.  It's music was peppy, with big drum sounds.  Sonic Youth was one of the bands that seemed to speak to the disconnect that many of us felt with that culture.  The anger, the alienation. 

Some critics have commented on the record's title as a metaphor for their audience, saying that it was a rallying cry for the alternative/college community.  I'm not so sure that I agree.  Sonic Youth's music has always been aggressively East Coast urban.  If NYC & LA are hypermodern, existing a few years in the future, large portions of the country were (& are) slightly premodern, existing a few years in the past.  The implicit artiness & futurism (albeit a dystopian one) of Sonic Youth's music distances them from the day to day experience of much of their audience, especially in 1988.

At the end of the day, this is a great record.  Perhaps my favorite by Sonic Youth.

Tiny Vipers "Hands Across the Void" (2007)

I would've thought that driving in the dark, in the rain would have been a great time to listen to this album.  But somehow, any connection with it just seemed impossible.  There's a starkness to the guitar/vocal interplay, drawing you in but ultimately pushing the listener away.  Is it too arty, or not arty enough?  I'm still not sure.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jolie Holland "The Living and the Dead" (2008)

Looking back over this album's reviews, it's interesting how many times The Living and The Dead is referred to as alt-country.  Not only do I not hear this as alt-country, I don't even see or hear the signifiers.   If the use of traditional rock instrumentation qualifies as alt-country, then I suppose that this is that.  To me, it's a rock record, albeit one more interested in songwriting than in rocking.

Holland seems more comfortable than on her earlier albums.  Her voice seems more confident, & less buried in the mix.  It's a clear step forward from where she had been.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Jeffrey Foucault "Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes" (2008)

I'm surprised that more contemporary folksingers don't look to the catalog of John Prine.  Great songs, but the bones are simple -- there's room for interpretation and change.  And unlike Dylan, for example, covering one of these songs is not a cliche.

Foucault does a great job with these songs.  The arrangements are changed slightly, but not in ways that are not true to the spirit of the originals.  He strikes a nice balance in terms of being different from the Prine versions, but not changed too much.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Drakkar Sauna "Jabraham Lincoln" (2006)

This record exists on a spectrum between They Might Be Giants & the Avett Brothers.  Acoustic-based rock songs, played for yuks.  As you might gather, I don't really find them amusing, or illuminating, but I do enjoy the Louvin-derived harmonies.  I don't understand why these guys are not more popular, as the elements seem to be in place for more success.

J Tillman "Tonight's The Night" (2010)

This seems to be a fairly recent trend -- artists doing cover versions of much loved albums, start to finish, with track order intact.  I suppose that it's a fairly logical extension of the tribute album concept that has been an ongoing trend since at least the 1950s (Nashville must have had some sort of local ordnance -- it seems that every singer had an album released called "Sings Hank Williams" or something like that.)

In all honesty, I'm not really sure what I think of the trend.  I like covers as much or more than the next guy.  But the entire album?  I've yet to hear such a project that seemed to add anything to the original material.

If you are going to go this route, this seems the way to go.  Internet only, released for free to your fans.  That's not so different from Phish's Halloween tradition of covering entire albums in the middle of their concerts.  And that's a fun tradition.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Curtis Eller "Wirewalkers and Assassins" (2008)

In all honesty, I had totally forgotten about this record.  I can immediately tell why I have it -- history, banjos, a purported modern folk slant on songwriting.  Unfortunately,  the songs are more rock songs with some banjo (I see you Mr Mumford) than songs from the folk tradition.  While the subject matter is generally historical, it's more often true in a third hand post-Dylan sense of wandering jumble of historical figures.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Hold Steady "Separation Sunday" (2005)

If I were to consciously design an album to be rock critic bait, it just might turn out to be something like this.  A concept record that both supports and deconstructs Big Rock tropes.  For example, while the band is rocking away (playing music so informed by Classic Rock), the lyrics nod to Lou Reed's "slice of street life", while avoiding traditional song structure (verse/chorus/verse). 

My guess is that these transplanted Midwesterners grew up on Classic Rock, and on many levels love it, while at the same time want to use more modern takes on the genre.

Strangely enough, while the whole is better than "Boys & Girls", I don't think that the high points are as high.  Still a very very good record.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

J Tillman "Singing Ax" (2010)

There's a certain austere beauty in this record.  It's so simple -- just Tillman & his guitar.  Given that the playing is more functional that ornamental, & that his voice is the same, so much comes to rest on the songs themselves.  Unfortunately, they fail to connect.  At times narrative, at times hinting at the mythical, they ultimately seem empty. 

Nancy Wallace "Old Stories" (2009)

I'm no expert on British folk music.  A couple of factors immediately reduce my enjoyment -- the heavy reliance on ballads in the repertoire, & the style of singing.  The combination seems to make the music seem .... well, soft.  It's interesting to me that there doesn't seem to be a British equivalent to bluegrass.  Hyped up, modernized versions of traditional material.  My shot from the hip explanation is that the UK folk scene developed more from a strictly preservationist perspective.  Without the commercial impetus for change, the music never really got modernized a la folk music in the US.

At any rate, this record by Nancy Wallace is a very nice example of contemporary British folk.  There's a mix of traditional & contemporary pieces, combined with simple arrangements.  There's a contemporary feel without the additional of electronic or other instruments that signify "hey I'm modern & hip".

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Alela Diane "To Be Still" (2009)

A few months ago I was revisiting some old Kate Wolf records & I was struck by how much her work is reflected in that of Alela Diane.  I suppose it's not surprising that a young folksinger from Northern California would be influenced by Wolf, who was the major folksinger from the same area in the 1970s.

Anyway, I love this album.   It says a lot for the album that I felt the same sort of enthusiasm a couple of years removed from its release.

In particular I love the way that Diane's lyrics combine the physical & the natural worlds.  For example:  "Thinking I'd like to look at your teeth/lined up in perfect rows/a maze of children's feet in orchard trees/where the flat lands stretch inside your mouth/and when you laugh all of the star thistles tumble out"

Calexico "Feast of Wire" (2003)

2003 seems to be a sweet spot in Calexico's development.  They are still firmly entrenched in a regional sound, with nods to their earlier existence as the band providing the soundtrack to imaginary Westerns.  But by 2003 their sonic palette has widened, showing more jazz & electronic elements.  A bit of pop has been added to the mix as well.  They sound a bit like Los Lobos' younger brothers, less dependent on blues structures, but clearly from the same neighborhood.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Steve Earle "Townes" (2009)

Steve Earle has probably done more to promote Townes Van Zandt's album sales than any of his record labels.  It's only natural that sooner or later Earle would get around to recording a full length tribute to his good friend.

For a songwriter less prolific than Earle, the suspicion would be that he had hit some sort of fallow patch, & was using the tribute as a stopgap to cover his lack of productivity.  For Earle, it just feels like "oh yeah, I've finally got time to put this together"....

Earle does a great job, the songs fit inside the context of his own catalog, yet still seem true to Townes' originals. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Dent May "The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele" (2009)

For me, this record is inconceivable without the existence of Stephen Merritt & the Magnetic Fields.  The indie purveyor of fractured classic pop tunes seems to have created the template for this ukulele playing singer.  That's not to say that this isn't an enjoyable, amusing record.  But at times it does feel like you're listening to some sort of Magnetic Fields outtakes, or perhaps the 73rd Love Song.

Friday, November 4, 2011

J Tillman "Vacilando Territory Blues" (2008)

In theory, J Tillman functions as the Neil Young to Fleet Foxes' Crosby Stills & Nash.  In practice, there's really not that much Neil Young on this record.  There are some hints of AOR rock, but they are a couple generations removed.  It seems more in line with the "quiet is the new loud" aesthetic, especially when the lofi production is taken into account.

While I do like some of the pseudo-philosophical lyrical musings, on the whole this record doesn't seem to do much for me.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Jose Gonzalez "Veneer" (2005)

There was a phenomenon that I noticed when I worked at Amoeba.  All the hip kids would come in & buy certain cult hit records.  Then two or three years later, you'd start to hear records being released that were clearly heavily influenced by these same records.  In this case, you can hear the influence of Nick Drake.  Simon Reynolds would probably consider this an example of "record collection" rock, but I don't see what the problem is.  After all, the early punks spoke openly about their obsessive listening to the "Nuggets" compilation.  And the Stones (among others) openly copied the Chess blues records they could find.

In many ways Gonzalez what you'd expect from a 21st century recording artist.  Argentine - born, Swedish -raised, recording in English, & heavily influenced by Nick Drake & other older English folk artists.  The world is getting smaller & smaller, & these sorts of counterintuitive cross-cultural influences seem appropriate.

This is a beautiful & delicate record.  It may be among the best of this new century.  I think that people will be listening to it many years from now.