Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stains on a Decade: 00

When collecting material for my “best of” the aughts I realized yet again how little new releases I generally pick up throughout a given year. While these ten entries will not be everything I purchased coming out as a new release between 00 and 09, they do represent the albums/artists that meant the most to me then and/or now…which is what this entire blog is all about.

And so, in alphabetical order (though I will name a “best” of each year at the end of each entry)…

The And/Ors: Will Self-Destruct – This album is my own special secret, as I’ve never, ever run across anyone else who has heard (of) this band (and if you have, let’s start a club). The only thing In Sound ever gave me before I boycotted them for life when they blew off Paul Spivey and Seesaw Records, this purchase was definitely worth the short-lived relationship. I don’t really know anything about these guys (and a gal on bass) aside from the fact that Will Self-Destruct (the only thing by them I can find) is one of the catchiest, noisiest, most infectiously joyous pieces of indie pop to be held over from that genre’s heyday of the mid 90s. Pavement meets Sonic Youth? Sure, why not? Screeching guitars, driving rhythms, fantastic nonsense lyrics and washes of affected noise to bring it all together, ten years on I still can’t get enough of this album and how fresh it sounds, raw and pure, something completely of its time and influences, and yet like nothing else (including Pavement meets Sonic Youth).

Candy Takes the Cake, At the Saturn Bar

Richard Ashcroft: Alone with Everybody – I wasn’t a Verve fan at all when it mattered. Call it stubbornness. But when it finally clicked close to a decade after the fact, I began my process of picking up all things Verve and Verve-related. And while I’ll admit that Urban Hymns is without a doubt the greatest thing to ever emerge from the Verve camp (don’t tell JT I said that), I’ll argue that Richard Ashcroft’s solo debut really gives that album a run for its money. Truth be told the two can’t really be compared, because while UH is a near CD limit’s worth of noisy vitriol juxtaposed with delicate, heartfelt angst, Alone with Everybody is seriously one of the most “soberingly upbeat” albums I’ve ever heard. While it’s hardly happy times and feeling good, Ashcroft tackles the issues of love and life and turns them all on their ear by saying “Hey, we’re gonna make it now.” True, this style/genre and attitude are not usually my grain of sand, but when something is good it’s good, and there is no denying the immediate appeal found in so many of these tracks, melodies that have you singing, even dancing (within your own private corner) long after the disc has run out.

Brave New World, Crazy World

Belle & Sebastian: Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant – Usually I’m late for the current “big thing” in the music world. For B&S I came around right when the hype for The Boy With the Arab Strap was just beginning to wane…which means I missed the uber hype of If You’re Feeling Sinister by a good 18 months. But when I jumped the B&S train, I jumped on all the way, and was therefore ready (and waiting) for the band’s next release, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. Unfortunately the rest of the cool music world had moved on. I have to admit that this is a somewhat difficult album. A band in transition? A band in turmoil? Possibly. Bassist and founding member Stuart David left upon its completion, and doe-eyed vocalist/instrumentalist Isobel Campbell after only another single or two. And perhaps that reflects on the finished product, ‘cos the deal with this album is that it’s a near complete mess. Invisible (at the time) front man Stuart Murdoch was giving the other members more pull and freedom of direction (or so it seems), which made for rather interesting if not somewhat off putting sidesteps from what the world had come to know as a “proper” Belle & Sebastian album. And even though things start off “traditionally” with a whisper-quiet opener that builds and layers with each verse-chorus-verse, by track three it’s obvious that cohesiveness is a tertiary thought. So for me what’s made this album worthwhile over the years is not what I thought about it at age 26 when I was still somewhat “freshly” in love with B&S, but the subsequent listens I’ve given it after long periods of neglect when I realized the tune that was mysteriously stuck in my head was found on this disc. Like so many albums by other artists before and after, this is a collection of songs that mainly stand well by themselves, as individual statements, with their only fault being lumped amongst a batch of like-minded misfits whose similarities are that they have nothing in common.

Don’t Leave the Light On, Baby, There’s Too Much Love

Broadcast: The Noise Made by People – Ok, I was on board for these guys nearly from the start (thanks MSP). Easily one of the best shows I have ever seen, it was also one of the loudest, and yet in a sonic way that hit me not so much in the ears as dead in the chest…that is to say the heart. Retro a good 3-5 years before such a move was cool, these guys didn’t go back to the 80s, but two decades before and further underground to the murk of obscure, psychedelic 60s rock. If I had to describe this album in a word, it would be “ambience.” The Noise Made by People is spooky, ominous, “hollow” (I know what I mean) and immediately endearing because this album does not pretend to be anything other than what it is – a batch of songs both simple and good, the way the best and purest of all things should be. Perhaps they had a vision, a goal, but to me Broadcast just created a sound, er, um, noise, that they enjoyed, and despite the fact that parts sound plagiaristically (it is too a word!) similar to virtually unheard tunes 30 years before, it was with a wink and a nod that made it all forgivable (after we all found out just how much The United States of America influenced this album).

Come On Let’s Go (official video), Until Then (Fan vid)

Coldplay: Parachutes – I’ve already admitted I’m a Coldplay fan, so you’re just gonna have to forgive me and move on. As I stated some months before, these guys are hit or miss. Taking their queue from Travis who took their queue from Radiohead, they rocked onto the scene in a mellow, almost Jack Johnson sorta way that made them exciting and yet non-threatening. I used to say that this album was half great, half boring, but honestly, listening to it again to “prepare” for this write up, I found myself quite digging most all of it in a comfortable, familiar way that I could chalk up to nostalgia for my mid 20s, but have to admit is because these songs are really quite solid. Don’t Panic is simply one of the best album openers of all time (though certainly rivaled by Politik two years later), and pretty much sets the stage not only for Parachutes, but Coldplay’s entire mood/stance/career/etc up through the present day. So for better or worse, this is where it all started, and just in case you’ve forgotten (or simply wondered) why and what the big deal was and is all about, you’d have to be a Batey or a Martineau to not find some worth within these walls.

Don’t Panic, Yellow

Mojave 3: Excuses for Travellers – What Mojave 3’s third outing did for me initially was help me recognize the worth of their sophomore effort, Out of Tune. After the shimmering, beautiful, folk-country brilliance of their debut, the follow up was an almost harsh jolt in the wrong direction…until I heard those first two albums blended so perfectly into Excuses for Travellers. Essentially this is a collection of mellow strums, with Neil Halstead (the GREATEST songwriter of our generation) sleep-crooning his take on the pain of relationships and the balm of gentle waves. And while things certainly do pick up the beat from time to time, it’s with a whimsical dreaminess that is more a joy to be alive in spite of the ache than any angst brought on by it. This is truly an atmospheric endeavor, and one that demands repeat listens in order to discover the hidden melody gems buried beneath layers of guitars, organs and foaming surf. Over the years this album (like Ride’s Going Blank Again) has become a favorite travel companion, making the songs it represents that much more poignant.

Return to Sender, When You’re Drifting

Radiohead: Kid A – I was right when I hated Radiohead the first time. But when I read an article in either Q or Uncut about this then forthcoming album in a restaurant somewhere in NYC, I believed they might be the long looked for saviors of rock music. And in a sense they were by creating one of the most “non-rock albums that truly kicks arse” of all time. Rolling Stone panned it (which infuriated me) and came up with the ABCs of why it was so terrible…the one that sticks with me to this day being “Eno-core,” which I agreed with and embraced because I was (and am) such a big Brian Eno fan and thought that obvious influence was one of the key qualities of Kid A. The problem is that while Thom and the boys successfully deconstructed rock n roll, they seemed to have forgotten how to put it back together again, as subsequent releases like Amnesiac (essentially a Kid A outtakes album) and Hail to the Thief just pushed further and further away from what could be considered listenable music. That coupled with the fact I listened to this album repeatedly for weeks and weeks means that its merit and longevity as something of import were lost to me and I had pretty much decided never to listen to it again. Thankfully I did (again, in preparation for this write up) and found that at low volumes Kid A provides quite pleasant mood music. Perhaps that’s all it ever was.

How to Disappear Completely, Idioteque

And the best album of 00 is... The And/Ors – Will Self-Destruct
Here's a video for Flexi-Clocks. I had no idea this existed until three days ago!!!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Q4-09: Greg, this is a long one...

2009 is over and what’s more, so is the decade of the aught. It didn’t occur to me to compile a “Best Of the 00s” until I saw some other folks were doing so. And having said as much, a) this is not that and b) I may or may not get around to such.

What this is though is my fourth quarter update of new music and general listening. Of the former I finally picked up most of the recent releases I mentioned back in my Q3 update, and of the latter I’ve once again been dabbling in nostalgia that’s a bit all over the board.

Here we go!

New Releases

The Church – Untitled #23: Continuing the trend they began with 1992’s Priest = Aura, the best of the best from down under have provided yet another solid outing of epic, textural landscape pieces. The great thing about the Church is that they’re always forward thinking, focusing more on the music than the dollar or even the fan base, expecting that the latter (especially after all this time) will be confidently on board with wherever they’re now heading on their sonic journey. The result is that each release sounds fresh and inventive, never relying on successful sounds of the past or once-tried gimmicks. This gives one the feeling that their best album is still the next album ahead, and that the latest is only a sketch of future brilliance, therefore making each new effort as relevant today as they were when Under the Milky Way was a minor rock hit on college radio 20+ years ago. And of course Untitled #23 is no exception. From the steady throb beats that open Cobalt Blue to the droning pianos and hypnotic vocal swirls and horns of Operetta, everything is delivered with precision and promise. This is elegant music, but not fragile, and even in the most beautifully sensitive moments there lurks an air of dark mystery, of calm foreboding, which is never more evident than on cornerstone track On Angel Street. But the abilities of past pop glory aren’t entirely left behind, just stretched further and to the next level of accessibility, as evident by Deadman’s Hand and the almost funky Space Saviour. As with all bands who care more about imagery than image, The Church is one of those near forgotten secrets that will slip by in the shadows if you don’t keep your finger to the pulse. Don’t miss a beat.

Mission of Burma – The Sound, the Speed, the Light: I hate myself for this, but I listened to this album once, said “eh…” and never put it back in. I think the problem was not being in the mood for Burma (blasphemy, I know!), ‘cos after that disappointing listen I put in some classic MoB and was still “eh…,” which is just silly. So I’ll come back around when I don’t have a million other things going on.

The Bats – The Guilty Office: When the Bats ended their 10 year silence in 2005 with At the National Grid, I was beyond thrilled and rented a couple extra pairs of arms so that I could more properly embrace that album. As I’ve said in previous posts, the Bats pretty much have a sound/formula that they never, ever, ever stray from. So when The Guilty Office came out this year I expected more of that same melancholy jangle…which is delightfully what I got. But even more so, I got a “return to form” in a sense. The Bats have always been a rather “loose” outfit, more interested in strumming open chords along to a basic rhythmic pace than wowing fans with stops and starts, elaborate time changes or inventive sounds. And even when rockin’ out with riffs and solos buzzing all over the place, it’s with a laid back whimsy that gives the impression they might just stop playing at any moment and go have a snack (ok, maybe that’s a stretch). But with The Guilty Office, the Bats seem to be more focused. This feels more like “the next album” rather than some old friends getting together to run through and record a few songs and call it a comeback (which is essentially what they did on At the National Grid). The result is a set of concise and bittersweet pop sing-a-longs that stand up very well to the band’s classic and most essential work – which basically makes this album both classic and essential to any Bats fan. Everything you’ve come to expect from Robert Scott and company is here, from plaintive rockers (Steppin’ Out) to broody ballads (The Guilty Office) and, I’m sure just for me, further support that any song with “satellite” in the title is fantastic (Satellites).

Colin Hay – American Sunshine: Any child of the 80s is at least a marginal fan of Men at Work. If you don’t like Land Down Under or It’s a Mistake or Overkill, you’re flat wrong and you hate music, spring days, your mom and a fresh glass of cold, cold milk from an iced mug. For most all of you who likely don’t know, Colin Hay was their cockeyed front man. His solo career has been very low key but very rewarding for anyone willing to seek out any of his ten or so albums. Admittedly I only own a couple, but when Daytrotter had him in for a session to record some scaled down versions of new songs, I knew I had to get whatever album they were own…enter American Sunshine. A truly gifted songwriter and a truly emotive singer, Hay delivers thirteen tracks that are thoughtful, observant and provide a fresh, unbiased perspective to love, life and the land we live in. I’ll tell you up front that it sounds a bit adult contemporary, but we all have to grow up sometime.

New to Me

My friend April who works for Warner Bros again let me in on their super cheap friends and family sale. I got about 30 CDs for about $20 (these are rounded numbers, kids), everything from the Afghan Whigs retrospective (which works quite well as an “album” despite my dislike for best ofs) to a couple of the Depeche Mode reissues from a couple of years back. I was pleased with most everything I got, but a few discs stood out above the others.

Grant Lee Buffalo – Storm Hymnal (2001): One of those groups I’d always heard of but never heard, this two disc best of culled from their four albums (plus a slew of rarities) will pretty much whet the whistle of anyone looking to see what this LA-based trio was all about. A bit punk, a bit folk, they created a sound that was both large and contained, and delivered it with a raw power equally paralleled by Grant-Lee Phillips’ open, passionate singing. The Shining Hour is simply one of the greatest songs of all time – cryptic, forbidding and catchy as all get out. Jupiter Teardrop takes your heart and wrings out every last drop of moisture in a repeat listen way that makes the pain more sweet than bitter. And even later on in their career, sappy love ballads like Truly, Truly make “theme-based” tunes played over montages in the likes of The OC and One Tree Hill seem almost legit (and right here I’ll point out that Phillips was a recurring character on Gilmour Girls…but they had Sonic Youth on too, so…something). If you like good music that’s as infectious as it is unobtrusive, you need to at least pick this one up.

Mudcrutch – s/t (2008): This is Tom Petty here so it has to be at least pretty good. And that’s not a question, but a statement. Anyone who knows anything about TP likely knows that Mudcrutch was his Florida-based outfit that he took to LA, cut a few singles with and then morphed into the Heartbreakers. To say that the two bands sound similar would sorta be stating the obvious, but, just like most any Heartbreakers and/or TP solo album, the differences are apparent enough to certainly call this a different band. Tom moving back to bass and allowing second guitarist Tom Leadon to supply an additional lead unbridled by vocal duties provides a more intricate, fleshed out sound, while the fact that many of these songs are “roots” based gives the album a leaner, even looser feel than most Petty outings. He goes places here he usually doesn’t on his own or with the Heartbreakers, like the pick-n-grin of traditional Shady Grove, the psychedelic meandering of Crystal River (which takes you all the way “out there” and back again in 9 minutes and 28 seconds) and the honky tonk-esque Queen of the Go-Go Girls, featuring, I believe, Leadon on lead vocals. And of course there are plenty of great this-could-be-on-any-Tom-Petty-album standards like Scare Easy and Orphan of the Storm. Really, if you’re a Tom Petty fan, you’ve already had this for over a year and I’m just preaching to the choir, but even the casual listener who likes the hits on the radio will find this album rewarding.

Foxboro Hot Tubs – Stop, Drop and Roll!!! (2008): I picked up this album solely based on the cover. It looked fun and promising, and for a dollar was worth the risk. I was so pleased to be right. This is simply upbeat, raucous garage rock in its purest, most endearing form. Mother Mary, Broadway, the Pedestrian – it’s the best of any retro revival act out there, and worth the price of admission for the spooky as spooky can be Zombies-like Dark Side of Night. And the big surprise? This band is Green Day…just a fluke, one-off side project. Why can’t they be this good in there more commercial form?


Cinderella – Night Songs (1986): As I’ve said before, hair metal was never my thing, but certain variations of glam rock, especially in the 80s, were a very close cousin, and so in 1986 when Cinderella rocketed to fame on the coattails of Bon Jovi’s success, I overlooked their “genre” and got down to the rock of the matter. And really, their debut is straight to business rock n roll. From the infectious Shake Me to the brooding Nobody’s Fool to more obscure album tracks like the balls out Hell on Wheels, Night Songs slows down only enough to be menacing, but mainly just rocks your face off. More than cool riffs and catchy choruses, the refreshing thing about this album is that Tom Keifer’s lyrics are observant without being preachy, indulgent or self-important, and a few songs (Once Around the Ride, Nothin’ for Nothin’) touch on the fleetingness of life – something that definitely set Cinderella (despite their “look”) apart from most all of their party-till-it-hurts contemporaries.

Rush – Moving Pictures (1981): I listened to Rush back in the day because my friends did. I listen to Rush now because I did back in the day because my friends did. So that means I’m really not much interested in anything they’ve done in the past 20ish years, and I only want to revisit what I enjoyed when I was younger. And that’s not to demote the worth of anything this triumphant trio have done at any time, because I did and do truly love me some Rush. Fans all have their preferred albums/eras, and most all would certainly put 2112, Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures somewhere in their top 3-5, so it’s really up to the individual to decide which is the best of those three (or Farewell to Kings or Hemispheres or Signals…). But I picked up Moving Pictures again a couple or so months back and listened to it nearly solid for ten days, and then just within the past couple of weeks, did that all over again. Man, what an album! I believe their biggest seller, Moving Pictures contains Rush’s most familiar song, Tom Sawyer, their most infamous song, YYZ, and their most pop-tastic song, Limelight. And all three of those songs (plus the nostalgio-futuristic Red Barchetta) make for a stellar side one. But for me, side two really takes things to the next level, and none better than the side-opening, 11-minute epic The Camera Eye. Really folks, put all your pretensions aside, ‘cos these guys can do it all and still not bring their egos to the table. If you like well-written, well-performed, intelligent, vibrant and accessible music, then this album is where you need to begin.

Queen – Crown Jewels (1998): Queen is one of those bands that truly defy categorization – glam, metal, pop, ragtime, camp, show tunes, experimental – essentially, RAWK! They’re also one of those bands that everyone (including my mother) likes at least one song. And since their creative heyday was pretty much contained to the 1970s (though there are some songs and even albums of merit later on), all you really “need” is the Crown Jewels box set that came out a few years ago. If you’re only familiar with the hits, this can be a lot to swallow all at once (TWSS). This was the problem I had a decade ago, so while some albums (Queen II, A Night at the Opera, Jazz) really jumped out and stuck with me for repeat listens over the years, others (A Day at the Races, News of the World, the Game) sorta fell flat despite some outstanding singles and album tracks. And while Queen is a band that can have a lot going on at any given point, that doesn’t necessarily mean they beg to be examined – at least not right from the start. Sometimes you have to let an album run its course in the background while you focus on most anything else, and only then will the slight and subtle nuances of songs like Drowse, My Melancholy Blues and Need Your Loving Tonight set themselves apart and give you a reason not to skip to Somebody to Love or Another One Bites the Dust. So with this most recent revisit, while busy feeding, playing with or cleaning up after Fox, I was really able to get in the right zone and enjoy, for the most part, those albums that I once sorta panned. And of course since Queen never ages or fades, those albums that I’ve loved for years now only proved themselves again, especially cuts like The March of the Black Queen, Seaside Rendezvous and Don’t Stop Me Now.


U2 – The Unforgettable Fire: Of all the U2 re-releases so far, this is the one I was most interested in simply ‘cos it’s the one I thought would benefit most from a good clean up. And while that’s not necessarily untrue, at the same time the new bright spots are much more subtle. There are really no hidden guitar chimes or bass snaps now released from the murk of mid-80s quality production, just a cleaner, crisper sound for a phenomenal record that was already pretty darn clean and crisp to begin with. Having run through their first four albums several times recently, it’s amazing to me that this one is so far removed from the logical steps forward of Boy, October and War. Truly, it’s a record in and of itself, a breathtaking anomaly, a beautiful freak of nature. And yet this is where the “classic U2 sound” was truly realized and also where it pretty much ended, as aside from about three songs on Joshua Tree (another album pretty much born and bred of its own accord) and a few moments on Achtung Baby, that echo that still haunts my soul has disappeared into the haze of mainstream overindulgence (but Dave, I still love you, man). Also, of the all the other releases, this possibly has the most exciting treasure trove of tracks on the bonus disc -- namely all those fun and funky b-sides from the singles, two previously unreleased tracks, Disappearing Act and Yoshino Blossom, the two studio tracks from the Wide Awake in America E.P., Love Comes Tumbling and The Three Sunrises, and a live re-working (also from WAiA) of A Sort of Homecoming that absolutely brings a tear to my eye. In a word, rejoice!

The Beatles – Let It Be: I’m still not a Beatles fan. But because I’m a fan of music I need to listen to them. So when the reissues came out I was like “interesting, but…evs.” But then I decided to pick up A Hard Day’s Night since Target sells the reissues for only $13.99 (which is a good 5 clams less than you could ever pick up the original CD releases any time, anywhere). When I put the disc in the car CD player I said, “Impress me.” I admit it did. From there it was sorta on…Abbey Road, Please, Please Me, Sgt. Peppers…I’m about halfway there, but the one that’s really, really standing out and impressing me is Let It Be. I traditionally don’t like this album even by Beatles standards. But, as with LA Woman, I just needed to be in the right place at the right time. At last I was (that place was the kitchen). And while it still doesn’t make me happy like AHDN, or keep me singing along like Abbey Road or even intrigue me more than it should like Sgt. Peppers, it has endeared itself to me in a way that I can’t fully explain. Here was a band, so the legend tells us, literally falling apart at the seams, and yet they were still able to come together (Ha, yes! Wait, wrong album...) and bring the rock in ways like no other band could or can, as well as produce some of the most thoughtful, memorable ballads the likes of which we’ll never hear again. And that’s worth $13.99 any day of the week.

The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms/The Good Earth: Like an idiot, I still haven’t picked these up.