Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Blitzen Trapper "Furr" (2008)

Furr is an absolute delight.  Blitzen Trapper drawn from a wide variety of classic rock sources, yet always sound like their own band.  You can break down elements in each song, playing connect the dots to the boomer versions, yet they skillfully avoid the pitfall of sounding absolutely derivative.  And oh yeah, unlike so many 21st century indie bands, the songs are actually good!

Madlib "Medicine Show vol 1: Before the Verdict" (2010)

The first volume of Madlib's "Medicine Show" series is a bit schizophrenic.  It comes across as more of an odds & sods project, with guest vocalist Guilty Simpson being the unifying factor.  That in & of itself is a weakness, at least for me, as I am not much of a GS fan.  In theory, the tension between his dead serious, street level rhymes, & Madlib's playful intellectualism should be intriguing.  In practice, Madlib seems pulled down.  When working with more talented collaborators he steps his game up.  Here, he feels too much like he's going through the motions.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Handsome Family "Scattered" (2010)

Scattered is an odds & sods collection from The Handsome Family.  Some covers, some demos.  Its focus, so much as it has one, is on the folky/country side of the band.  There are a couple of more punk rock tracks, but they are not nearly as effective as the rough ballads that dominate this collection.  This is clearly not the best place to start, but a worthy listen if you like the band.

Snooks Eaglin "Out of Nowhere" (1988)

Another fantastic contemporary blues album from Eaglin.  Why did his run of albums in the 80s not get any widespread critical response?  Was it because he was on an independent label?  Was it the fact that he wasn't following in the popular Stevie Ray Vaughn path?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wilco "Being There" (1996)

I'm not even going to begin to do justice to this record.  It is so dense with musical references to the history of rock and country music.  Really it deserves a 33 1/3 style dissertation.  But that is a project for another time.  Suffice it to say, that this is truly an essential record from the 90s.

Eric Lindell "Cazadero" (2011)

This is an interesting album.  There's just something intangible missing.  Everything about it is solid, good sound, playing, songs.  But it's lacking that special thing that really sets a great record apart from the others. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Eric Lindell "Between Motion & Rest" (2010)

This is a fairly pedestrian collection of contemporary blues/R&B.  While originally a Californian, "Between Motion & Rest" sounds much more Gulf Coast in sound.  I can't determine if it's ultimately the fault of the production, or the performances, but it just is very rote.  It's a shame, really, as my gut feeling is that this band would be excellent in a live setting.

Snooks Eaglin "Baby, You CanGet Your Gun!" (1987)

The remarkable thing about this album is its diversity.  Eaglin was called a "human jukebox", & a quick sampling of just this album shows why.  You have everything from straight ahead blues cuts to latin tinged instrumentals to funk.  While a pale imitation to his live shows, "Baby, You Can Get Your Gun!" is still a worthwhile listen.

Van Morrison "Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl" (2009)

I'm having trouble coming up with a rationale for this album that isn't cynical.  There's been a trend in recent years for artists to perform entire albums in concert.  Well, that's not entirely accurate.  This isn't like the prog era, when a group might perform a concert entirely of their new double album.  What they're doing is revisiting older, much beloved material.  Turning themselves into a tribute act, of sorts.  So apparently Van Morrison decided to do a couple of concerts playing the Astral Weeks material.  This album is a from a concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

There are some minor changes to the material.  The track order has been shifted a bit.  Arrangements have been altered to accommodate changes to Morrison's voice.   Some tracks have been lengthened.  But in terms of the overall take on the material, it is the same.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bon Iver "For Emma, Forever Ago" (2008)

The cover foreshadows the music itself, quiet with a wintery sheen.  Vernon's falsetto vocals soar over simply strummed guitar.  It's a wonderful debut.

Despite that, it really is shocking to me that this record became such a big deal.  I like it, don't get me wrong, but I don't know that it's not any better than quite a few simple lofi indie albums since the first Iron & Wine release.

Akron/Family "Akron/Family" (2005)

Well, this is a weird one.  It's more than a bit all over the place.  Tape manipulation, soundscapes, some indie rock a la Radiohead, some Faheyesque folk.  The more structured pieces seem to work best.  It's a difficult listening experience.  The fractured nature of the material means that the listener can never really settle for any particular mode of listening.

The Avett Brothers "Emotionalism" (2007)

This is a seminal album in a movement that has yet to be named, and has yet to play out.  The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, The Decemberists are all playing indie rock with instrumentation most commonly used in folk music.  Often they are referred to as folk artists, but don't be fooled.  The music itself is contemporary indie rock. 

At times the Avetts come a bit too close to wallowing in emo handwringing.  While this sort of sentimentality probably accounts for at least some of their popularity, to my ears it's a distraction.  I would hope that as they mature, the emotional palate of their music will expand.

The Bird & the Bee "Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future" (2008)

This album seems to exist on a continuum from Doris Day to 80s pop acts like the Thompson Twins to the turn of the millennium downtempo acts.  Crisp female vocals over polite, lounge influenced musical beds.  There's nothing here to dislike, but conversely not much to really get excited about either. 

Devendra Banhart "Oh Me Oh My" (2002)

In many ways this album strikes me as more of a piece of outsider art than what we normally think of as an album.  There are not many, if any, concessions to pop here.  Starting with the production, which sounds as if it were recorded on home analog equipment.  Levels fluctuate within individual tracks, there is background noise.  The music itself is frequently out of tune or off key.  The opening track features handclaps that go in & out of rhythm.

The thing is, in spite of all that, this is a strangely compelling album.  There's a real sense of creativity at play.  A sense that Banhart just had to express himself so badly that the technical aspects of the recording really weren't important.

Antony & the Johnsons "The Crying Light" (2009)

It's impossible to say anything about this album without confronting Antony's voice.  It's an instrument that is singular in popular music.  Fragile, yet strong, somehow conveying a deep sense of sadness underlying any words he may be singing.  The arrangements are delicate, relying more on traditions of cabaret & contemporary classical than any immediate pop referents.  The overall effect is that of music displaced in time.  It could exist in the past or the future.  My imagination sees Antony performing in a small cafe in the world of Bladerunner. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Waifs "Temptation" (2011)

Temptation is darker than what I've previously heard from The Waifs.  It's more influenced by blues and jazz.  At times it reminds me of early Rickie Lee Jones.  It doesn't seem to have the same levity that I enjoyed on their live album. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Jorma Kaukonen "River of Time" (2009)

River of Time is comfortable like a worn flannel shirt on a chilly day.  Jorma's gentle finger picking & relaxed vocals.  Mellow tempos & gentle themes.  This isn't necessarily the most groundbreaking or challenging record, but sometimes that's not what you want.

Nick Cave "From Her to Eternity" (1984)

You sometimes hear psychologists talk about the link between anger & depression.  If you have any doubts about that connection, slap on this album.  This is Cave as angry young man.  He already has more artistic desires than most of his contemporaries, but this is loud, clanging stuff.  Sure, there's a few tracks that seem to foreshadow his later incarnation as a twisted balladeer, but for the most part it's anger and power that rule the show.

Here's the most notable track, from the performance in Wings of Desire.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Cramps "Smell of Female" (1983)

It's only about 30 minutes, but what a 30 minute ride!  This is a live set released in 83.  I assumed that the playing would be sloppy and amazing (and it is), but the sound quality really blows me away!  Most of the live recordings of The Cramps' peers sound terrible.  This is a clean, crisp recording.  Wow.

Neko Case "Middle Cyclone" (2009)

I've always seemed to have a strange relationship with Neko Case's music.  I like all the parts.  The arrangements, her voice, the lyrics, the production.  When it's playing I enjoy it.  Now I'm not crazy for it, & it does have a tendency to morph into background music, but I enjoy it.  However, 10 minutes after I finish listening to it, I've totally forgotten about it.  It's like it's never existed.

The Waifs "Live From The Union of Soul" (2009)

This is a live set from this young Australian folk act.   There's a surprising amount of stylistic diversity present, from honky tonk to strummy folk.  This is all presented with beautiful harmonies & a charming stage presence.

Old School Freight Train "Six Years" (2009)

OSFT are a contemporary progressive bluegrass band.  I think of their music as "third stream" bluegrass, influenced more by classical and contemporary indie rock than the blues or folk tradition.  Similar in that regard to the Punch Brothers, etc etc...

The sonics of "Six Years" are absolutely stunning.  Of course with David Grisman doing the production work, that is to be expected.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot here that I can really sink my teeth into.  The technical abilities are strong, but none of it seems to move me.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gretchen Peters & Tom Russell "One to the Heart, One to the Head" (2009)

It's interesting that two performers who are known as songwriters collaborate, & then choose to record an album primarily of covers.  Amongst others, there are songs by Bob Dylan, Ian Tyson, Rosalee Sorrells, & Diana Jones.

There's a languid pace to this material.  Touches of accordion add a southwestern flair, & accentuate the desert vibe. 

It's a bit odd when I think of this album.  I like some material so well, that I think perhaps more highly of it on the whole than I should.  On balance, I find quite a bit of the material a bit too smooth (perhaps its the curse of the piano based arrangements).  But the material that works for me.... oh, how it works.

The Replacements "Let It Be" (1984)

This is one of the short list albums that were the soundtrack to my college years.  I can't remember who bought the album first, & I suppose that doesn't really matter.  What I do remember is how various friends and roommates fell in love with the album.  About the time anyone would get sick of it, someone else would seem to discover it for the first time.  So this one got a LOT of plays.

In so many ways it still sounds like a perfect soundtrack to that time.  Brash stupid songs ("Gary's Got a Boner"), semi ironic references to our childhood (the KISS cover), doses of angst ("Unsatisfied").  Listened in opposition to the posturing of arena rock, or the big city artiness of post punk, it was a breath of fresh air.  Somehow the Replacements seemed like guys we would know.  And maybe you'd see this sort of sloppy rock & roll on a Friday or Saturday night at the local dive bar.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Cramps "Psychedelic Jungle/Gravest Hits" (1981/1979)

This is a CD reissue of The Cramps' second full length, with their debut EP tacked onto the end.  Hence the 2 dates. 

Psychedelic Jungle suffers a bit from muddy production, as so many 80s releases are prone to do.  Ultimately, it's just not their strongest collection of material.  The performances are rather subdued (by their standards).  I'd suggest skipping it.

ESG "A South Bronx Story" (2000)

Somehow, sisters from the Bronx ended up recording dark skittery minimalist funk.  This music owed more to the early post punk scene than it did to any obvious soul/funk pedigree.  How does this happen?  Of course they came to be reevaluated through the side door.  Their songs were used widely as samples in the early 90s.  This music is still vibrant and fresh sounding.  Highly recommended.

Madlib "Beat Kondukta vol 5 & 6" (2009)

This album cover is so representative of Madlib's sound.  A degrading imagine, strong at first impression, that slowly slips away as you come closer to grabbing it.  Brilliant.

As I listened to this album I kept thinking about how Madlib seems to be underappreciated.  Oh sure, there's a sense that critically he's seen as a talented guy, but there's really only a small cult of Madlib heads who really seem to value his music.  Why is a band like Radiohead seen as perhaps the dominant musical voice of our time?  What do they offer that he doesn't?  My initial reaction is that residual rockism is the answer.  They're seen as musicians, while he's seen as some sort of DJ/producer figure.

This entry in the Beat Konducta series is Madlib's tribute to his good friend & collaborator, J Dilla.  It's an information rich instrumental sound collage.  Highly recommended.

Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics "Inspiration Information" (2009)

The third volume in Strut Records' "Inspiration Information" series brings together veteran Ethiopian jazz player Mulatu Astatke with young London groove merchants The Heliocentrics.  The concept is intriguing, introduce young lions to veterans, and hear the results.  Unfortunately, in this case the collaborative process doesn't seem to have quite worked.  The result sounds more like The Heliocentrics laying down a musical bed, quite Astatke provides some melody lines on top.  Astatke's work is interesting, if not particularly groundbreaking.  The Heliocentrics, however, are too prove to devolving into the tepid forms of downbeat that were so popular at the turn of the century.  This ultimately succeeds as neither funk nor Ethiojazz. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Gun Club "Miami" (1982)

Talk about an album title not matching its sound.  Even the album cover, showing the band with palm trees, is contradictory to its sound.  There's no sunshine here.  This Miami is only night.  Driving a fast car through the desert, not knowing if you're running to or from something.  The soundtrack to a horror/action movie.

The sound here is less bluesy than "Fire of Love".  For some reason I keep thinking of Echo & the Bunnymen.  Perhaps it's the deep vocals.

This video's from a couple of years after the release of this album, but hey, any cover of CCR is better than CCR, right?

Jenn Grant "Honeymoon Punch" (2011)

By 2011, Grant has more or less totally abandoned her earlier folk-based sound.  "Honeymoon Punch" is pure indie pop.  Nicely crafted songs that suit her voice well.  Unfortunately, nothing here really stands out to me.

17 Hippies "El Dorado" (2009)

"El Dorado" is a journey through the European folk tradition.  This German collective moves fluently through a variety of styles & creates a wonderful, fun listening experience.  Highly recommended for fans of Beirut or other Balkan influenced acts of the last decade.

Tom Rush "What I Know" (2009)

I have to admit that I'm really not familiar with Rush's work from the late 60s/early 70s.  In my mind, he's always been lumped into that Greenwich Village scene, which has always seemed a bit tame and boring.

This is Rush's first studio album since the mid 70s.  He's remained active, apparently, playing to his fanbase, but not doing studio recordings.  "What I Know" is really what you'd expect from someone with his artist profile.  The arrangements are all folky or light country, with occasional guest vocals from (who else?) Emmylou Harris & others.  The songs themselves are more than competent technically, ruminations on aging and reflections on a life mostly lived.  For his fans, they were probably ecstatic, but I personally don't find it very engaging.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Candi Staton "Evidence: The Complete Fame Records Masters" (2011)

This is a wonderful collection of Southern Soul music.  Staton's classic sides recorded at Muscle Shoals at their peak.  Staton's voice isn't as powerful as Aretha's, but that doesn't mean that it's not as expressive.  Highly recommended.

Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby "Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby" (2008)

British pub rock icon teams up with American songwriter for a collection of lofi indie pop songs.  The songs are simple, the harmonies ragged.  This one is hailed as a classic by some, but I'm just not hearing it.  The sass in the songs is too toned down to be considered angry, & some of their targets a bit misguided (men in sandals ??). 

Jenn Grant "Echoes" (2009)

Jenn Grant is a Canadian singer songwriter, working that same space as Feist.  At its core her music is simple guitar based songs, but overlayed with simple band arrangements and electronics.  This is the portion of the music that gives it a more contemporary feel.  Her songs and voice are solid enough, but nothing here really moves me.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Cramps "Bad Music for Bad People" (1983)

Somehow The Cramps still sound fresher and more dangerous than most any contemporary band.  It's sloppy and raw and bad to the bone.  The rough production is a perfect fit for the ascetic of the music.

AMG lists the release date for this as 1983, but I'm fairly certain I remember kids wearing the T shirt before then.  It became an iconic signifier in the early 80s, & I have to admit that the graphics still appeal to me.

Most, if not all of these songs are now available on other releases, but this still holds up.

The Gun Club "Fire of Love" (1981)

More than 30 years later, "Fire of Love" is still a lava hot smoking platter of rock & roll madness.  Back in '81, the connection between punk & blues had not been clearly drawn.  The Brits had ignored the connection (probably because it was too closely associated with the Clapton/Green/Page/et al guitar gods they wanted to dethrone).  Americans were focusing more on 60s Nuggets acts. 

Coming out of the LA scene, Jeffrey Lee Pierce reconnects to the primal force of the blues, energized by the punk bands of his time.

It's interesting to hear how much this sounds like the Dream Syndicate in hindsight.  There's more of an instrumental emphasis than you might expect from the scene.  But unlike, say Television, this isn't NY avant instrumental prowess, but that clearly evolved from the rock scene.

Beastie Boys "Hot Sauce Committee, Pt 2" (2011)

Does it really matter *when* a Beastie Boys album was released?  They seem to exist in their own temporal continuum.  While seemingly not a part of the hip hop dialogue, they always seem to sound both cutting edge and retro.

"Hot Sauce" isn't a game changer the way that "Paul's Boutique" or "Check Your Head" were, but it's still a great album.

Doug Paisley "Constant Companion" (2010)

This is a much more confident & assured release from Paisley.  Gorgeous country rock songs, evoking tender relationships.  For whatever reason, it seems to have been overlooked.

Candi Staton "Who's Hurting Now?" (2009)

What does a legacy recording act do after the big comeback record?  Staton followed up the comeback with a gospel record, & then ends up here.  This is a solid effort, modern in sound, yet mimicking classic Southern R&B.  While that's it's strength, unfortunately it's also it's weakness.  Now it's competing with the old recordings.  And quite frankly, it fails to live up to the standards of her older material.  For completists only. 

Phosphorescent "To Willie" (2009)

"To Willie" is Phosphorescent's ode to Willie Nelson, focusing primarily on Nelson's early 70s material for Columbia.  The album cover itself is an homage to Nelson's "To Lefty from Willie" album, itself a tribute.

The implication is that this should be listened to in the context of the country music tradition of cover albums, a popular tactic in the pre-Beatles era when there was a purer distinction between songwriters & performers.  The problem with this approach is that the cover album concept works best when the performer is a unique stylist who is then challenged with bringing their own style to the earlier works of a master songwriter.  Phosphorescent isn't even remotely on that level of stylist.  While a competent indie country rock act, they don't have an instantly recognizable sound.

Additionally, Phosphorescent fall prey to the indie fallacy that legacy acts were all singularly toned.  Willie, for example, is viewed through a lens of slow late night ballads.  This removes all the swing from Willie's arrangements (and a crucial part of his sound).

Still, "To Willie" is an enjoyable, if minor release.  Recommended for late night listening.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Hot 8 Brass Band "Rock With The Hot 8 Brass Band" (2007)

The Hot 8 are one of the young generations of New Orleans Brass Bands.  As such, this album seamlessly blends jazz, hip hop, R&B, & gospel into an exciting melange unique to New Orleans.  There's a simple, documentary style production involved, which allows for the party atmosphere from a live performance to come through.  It's 71 minutes of a hot greasy funky party.  It's not the same as seeing a Brass Band live, but it comes as close as I've heard.

Doug Paisley "Doug Paisley" (2008)

Doug Paisley seems to be a talented young songwriter well on his way to finding his own voice.  His debut harkens back to the folk rock sounds of the 70s.  But there is as much Bonnie Prince Billy here as there is Neil Young or John Prine.  The rough vocals (especially the on duets) are a giveaway that this is not some lost relic of the 70s, but rather a contemporary production.  Still, the warm analog sound would not be out of place among a collection of older material.  This is not a stellar collection, but it certainly has its bright spots, & offers quite a bit of promise for the future.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lily Allen "It's Not Me, It's You" (2009)

This is where Ms Allen takes on the always tricky problem of the followup album.  "Allright, Still" was one of the brightest pieces of pop to be released in the decade.  It combined a sassy modern outlook with retro musical settings.

"It's Not Me" leaves me disappointed.  The sensibility is still there, but musically it's more similar to Madonna's club music than the R&B/ska of Allen's first album.  For my tastes, there's just not as much to sink your teeth into.

Possessed By Paul James "Cold & Blind" (2008)

I have to admit that I love the aesthetic on this album.  Just a guy & some basic instruments, overdriven amps & mics.  There's a rawness to the recording that you rarely hear aside from some old garage & rockabilly records.

Unfortunately, I just don't like the songs nearly so much as I do his later material.

Collie Ryan "The Hour is Now" (2009)

After a raised profile due to her appearance on The Numero Group's "Ladies of the Canyon" collection, this compilation appeared.  It contains selections from 3 self released albums from 1973.

I have to say that I have a hard time getting past the tonal qualities of her voice.  (My knee jerk reaction is that it falls into what I think of as the Joan Baez school of folk singing.)  It's a soprano with lots of vibrato.  The accompanying music is so simple & understated that I just don't have anything to fix on other than her voice.  And that just doesn't work for me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Strand of Oaks "Pope Killdragon" (2010)

I really don't have much to say about this.  I was profoundly unmoved by this effort, & couldn't seem to make any sort of connection.

The Gun Club "Mother Juno" (1987)

It's funny how time plays with our perceptions of bands and their music.  I remember thinking in the 80s that The Gun Club had a very distinctive, tribal sound.  Now I can hear common elements from many 80s bands.  Realistically, I was very disappointed on relistening to this one.  I was excited for some really good 80s LA rock.  Instead, it just strikes me as mediocre.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Strand of Oaks "Leave Ruin" (2008)

The widespread dispersal of recording technology, combined with the collapse of the traditional music distribution system, has led to a flood of would be auteur projects, the stereotypical "bearded guy in a cabin".  While the creative possibilities are exciting, there's also a bit of loss of quality as the gatekeepers disappear.

Strand of Oaks is often described as "folk", which is not, I think, quite accurate.  He doesn't seem to draw on the folk tradition.  It's clearly rock music, albeit quiet introspective rock in the vein of Bonnie Prince Billy or Songs: Ohio.  I don't have fault with his vision or execution, it is just not exceptional.  To my ears, this is a great example of an album that you forget 10 minutes after it finishes.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit "Here We Rest" (2011)

Wow.  I really overlooked this album.  Stylistically, it draws from the parts of Southern Rock usually ignored by the Drive-By Truckers -- pop country, soul, Little Feat style boogie rock.  This is a very fun, personal album.