I loved Jungle’s 2018 album For Ever, and am just now circling back to hear their 2014 debut. Pleased as punch to find several more gems from this English “collective,” as apparently they prefer calling themselves. At the core of this collective are childhood friends Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland, both masters of electronica. Amazing vocal harmony mixes here; incredibly credited to only one person (Rudi Salmon). Love the first six songs, then things fall off. Still, there’s an incredible vibe to everything they do.
Pigeonhole: Neo soul, funk, neo disco
There is something deeply calming and peaceful about M. Ward’s latest, Migration Stories, his tenth album. By the end of the second song, “Heaven’s Nail and Hammer,” I was fully engaged in the halcyon depths. The third song, “Coyote Mary’s Traveling Show,” is a particular standout. These cuts were inspired by stories of migrants, in Ward’s own country of Canada, but also in the sometimes-hostile environment of his adopted United States. It’s a subject close to his heart; his grandfather immigrated to the US in the 1920s from Mexico. Ward’s interpretation of the hundred year-old “Along the Santa Fe Trail” is particularly wonderful. Ward is also member of She & Him and folk-rock supergroup Monsters of Folk. His playing style is considered an example of American primitive guitar, utilizing fingerstyle plucking with fingernails or finger picks.
Pigeonhole: Indie folk
San Francisco DJ Justin Martin has dropped a new single, “Stay,” with great vocals and lyrics by Dalilah. This is not to be confused with the 2014 Justin Martin remix on Henry Krinkle’s single “Stay,” which is a totally different jam. Or the four other mixes of “Stay” on that Krinkle disc. I’m clearly missing something with this obsession with the word stay. Also, checked out the remixes of Martin’s 2012 Ghettos and Gardens. It’s good, not great. “Butterflies” (Cats ‘n Dogz remix) is a little redundant but okay. I have a file in Spotify titled Sex Music, where I immediately copied the Danny Daze remix of “The Gurner,” featuring Pillow Talk. “Don’t Go’” (Leroy Peppers remix) is pretty stellar, too.
Pigeonhole: House, electronica
Britt Daniel is one of my favorite voices in rock. At times the Spoon lead singer’s voice is smooth as butter, and at other times he sounds like he’s gargling gravel. Or yelling. Daniel’s knows how to let his voice convey more than just words, like on pretty much any track on They Want My Soul, the Austin band’s eighth studio album from 2014. The lead track “Rent I Pay” sets a high bar for the rest of the record, and it delivers. “Inside Out,” “Let Me Be Mine,” and “New York Kiss” are all terrific. More of Daniel’s genius can be found on his 2012 side project with the Divine Fits. “Would That Not Be Nice” is perhaps my favorite song released that year.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock
Todd TerjeIt’s Album Time (2014)
This was Terje’s debut, which took him three years to create and produce, and it’s his only solo work to date. Terje is a Norwegean DJ and producer who’s a multi instrumentalist and master of all things electronica, including the arpeggiator. There’s no common thread on this album; it veers wildly between cheeky electronic play (“Leisure Suit Preben”), to full-blown samba (“Svensk Sas”), to Seventies porno soundtrack ready (“Preben Goes to Acapulco”). The only commonality is Terje’s tongue-in-cheekiness; he never takes himself too seriously. The poppy “Johnny and Mary” is a cover of a Robert Palmer song that drags a bit under the weight of guest vocalist Bryan Ferry (after a few passes, I grew to like it). Terje’s most played tune is the Daft Punk reminiscent “Inspector Norse.” If nothing else, this album is an hour’s worth of quirky dance beats and pure entertainment. Perhaps the best description of this album’s mood can be summed up in the title, and the beat, of the second to last track: “Oh Joy,” a total throwback to the gay disco floors of the late Seventies (I assume), and just a whole lot of fun to experience.
Pigeonhole: Nu-disco; electronic, exotica
Elephant StoneHollow (2020)
This fifth album from Canadian indie rock band Elephant Stone incorporates East Indian instruments (sitar, table, dilruba) with mostly pleasant results. The fist two cuts are strong, the next three land rather flat. But from there things really take off as “We Cry” bleeds into “Harmonia” to elevate the album to the next level. “I See You” is a tasty slow groove (a la Tame Impala) with a nifty final minute. “The Clampdown” is a nice burn. “Fox on the Run” has some U2 elements. “House on Fire” is the album’s best, with a chord progression in the chorus that reminds me of a song I still can’t place. The final cut “A Way Home” is the weakest.
Pigeonhole: Indie, psychedelic rock
Alaina Castillo just might be the next Youtube success story, perhaps on the scale of Alessia Cara or Carly Rae Jepsen. Two years ago as a senior at a Houston high school, Castillo’s video “Sing You to Sleep” exploded on Youtube with a quick million views. Now, Spotify has signed her to its platform called RADAR, which gives developing artists publicity and support. Her debut EP The Voicenoteswas released today and all four cuts deliver. I hear echoes of King Princess, particularly on “Sad Girl.”
As a possible alternative to the Stevie Wonder suggestion for Earth Day (previous post), might I suggest ZOMA by the English band Glass Animals (2014). Several cuts transition into each other with the jungle sounds of birds and insects. The cut “Toes” was developed as a musical interpretation of the novels Heart of Darkness and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Other cuts with earthy titles like “Hazy,” “Pools” and “Gooey” further the theme of nature. If you need to chill and lower your blood pressure, ZOMA could be the perfect accompaniment. Mello nearly to the point of monotone, this album is sparse but colored beautifully with the soothing falscetto of Dave Bayley.
Pigeonhole: Psychedelic, indie pop
It’s Earth Day #50, the perfect excuse to listen to Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants from 1979. In the beginning, of course, there was Earth, and so begins the album, with “Earth’s Creation,” which, thanks to crashing cymbals, suggests more of a Big Bang theory than the six-day undertaking suggested in Genesis. But that’s a bigger bite than I can chew right now. Next we hear the sounds of a newborn jungle, with bird chirps and primate screeches, as the earth, and the album, come to life (“The First Garden” and “Voyage to India.)” Wonder’s first vocal appearance isn’t until the forth cut. The only single from the album, “Send One Your Love,” has nothing to do with nature or plants or Earth, unless you count the line: “Send her your love/With a dozen roses.” One of my favorite moments is the stereo affect of a housefly in “Venus Fly trap And The Bug,” buzzing from the left to right channels. But the album is, for the most part, insufferable, with only occasional nods to interesting.
Pigeonhole: New age
Wasn’t aware of the term “blue-eyed soul” until I saw it used to describe Scottish singer/multi-instrumentalist Paola Nutini. Joe Cocker (green eyes) and Rod Stewart (brown) were early examples of this style, but it was the hazel-eyed George Michael’s Faith (1987) that became the first record by a white artist to top the R&B/Hip-Hop charts. Nutini’s third album Caustic Love (2014) has several great rhythm and bluesy cuts (“Numpty,” “Looking For Something”). Nutini’s vocals are rich with emotion and power, perhaps best demonstrated on “Cherry Blossom.” Jannelle Monae offers a sweet rap on “Fashion.”
Pigeonhole: Pop rock, soul rock, folk, blue-eyed soul
In honor of today’s date, I Googled: “best albums to smoke to” and found a familiar list (Dark Side of the Moon, Beach House). Also some surprises, like a lovely disc from an Icelandic outfit called Sigor Ros. Their 1999 album Agates Byrjun (“good start” in Icelandic) is heavy on orchestration and other worldliness. The opening cut is dreamy and trance inducing, all ten minutes of it. Part of the tripiness of the collection is that it’s sung entirely in Icelandic, something rarely heard in pop music. Even Iceland’s most famous musician Bjork sings entirely in English. Sigor Ros’s lead singer Jonsi Birgisson offers mostly understated falsetto vocals and plays a variety of instruments, including the bowed guitar, a guitar played with a bow and not a bent guitar, as I initially envisioned.
Pigeonhole: Art rock, dream pop, ambient
Ed O’Brien’s debut, away from his day job as guitarist of Radiohead, just dropped and it’s everything you’d expect from a musician with his pedigree. The earlier singles are all here and great, along with five new cuts that collectively make up Earth. It’s hard to image anything pushing this out of my top ten for 2020. If there was any doubt of O’Brien’s influence on Radiohead, this album can dispel that. The blusy, Clapton-esque, “Deep Days” is infectious and incredible. “Long Time Coming” could have been a Cat Stevens single in the seventies (which is not a bad thing). “Banksters” is the best of the new ones. The only one I didn’t immediately connect with is “Sail On.” But maybe time will change that. From the earlier singles, “Shangri-La” and “Brasil” are incredible.
Pigeonhole: Alt rock, electronic
It’s probably safe to say you’ve never heard anything like Fiona Apple’s brand new album, Fetch The Bolt Cutters. There’s no simple way to describe it other than layered and complex. There’s as much jazz influence as rock. Based on the reaction so far, it will end up as one of the top albums of the year, maybe the album of the year when it comes awards time. The main elements here are percussion, piano and Apple’s incredible voice, which seems capable of absolutely anything she dreams up. And not standard percussion, either, but found objects from her Venice Beach home where much of Bolt Cutters was recorded. These aren’t melodic tunes; there’s nothing to hum or tap your foot to. But it’s pure musical genius. Comparisons to Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Tom Waits seem fair. Apple has said the album is about breaking out of your personal prison with a set of bolt cutters. She pushed her record company to release the album now, instead of October as planned, as an offering to those in lockdown. Apple credits her own pre-covid self-isolation as essential to the development of the album.
Before my Covid hiatus I posted about Beck’s 2019 album Hyperspace, which I found super enjoyable. Today I went back a few more years, to 2014, and found something even better, the absolutely incredible Morning Phase. It’s a brilliant and haunting collection, particularly when heard for the first time while wandering the barren streets of Los Angeles at what normally would be rush hour on a Friday. But today, like every other day of Lockdown, there’s little traffic and almost no one out, and those who are out are almost all wearing facemasks. When the seventh song comes on, “Wave,” it feels like a commentary on this gloomy moment. It starts off bleak and suspenseful against an orchestral backdrop, with lyrics about a “form of a disturbance.” It ends, appropriately, with the Beck singing the word isolation four times, building to a chilling crescendo. A little later, “Morning” includes the line “can we start it all over again,” which happened to be the question on everyone’s mind, in terms of opening up the economy post Lockdown. “Blue Moon” has moments of Beach Boys harmonies. “Heart as a Drum” feels like a misplaced Iron & Wine tune. I often mark times in my life with albums. This may be the one for now.
Pigeonhole: Folk rock
Ty Segall has twelve album titles to his solo career and until I started researching the best LPs of 2014, I’d never heard of him. But that year Manipulator was released, and it got a lot of attention for its delicious retro, garage band fuzziness. Segall’s throwback sound ignites a nostalgia that belies his comparative youth (26 when it was released). He’s the mastermind of everything you hear, vocals, guitar, drums, bass and keyboard. Echoes of The Yardbirds, Thin Lizzy and Bowie are numerous. Seventeen cuts makeup this double album, with many highlights, like the ferocious “The Crawler,” “Feel” (not to be confused with the sixteenth cut “The Feels”) and “Green Belly.”
Pigeonhole: Garage rock, retro rock
The Dutch deep house trio Cubicolor released their second album last month, Hardly A Day, Hardly A Night, which was written and developed entirely while on a boat in Amsterdam. This sophomore effort unfolds very slowly. When vocalist Tim Digby-Bell makes his enterance (more than a minute into the second cut), I immediately hear echoes of Tyrone Lindqvist of Rufus du Sol (and again on “Wake Me Up”). This twelve-tune collection could stand a little more development; in fact I’m not sure it ever really reaches its potential. Too many moments that drag (like “Kindling”). Perhaps a producer with more imagination could have made it really pop. But there’s reason to keep watching these guys.
Obviously, something has gone terribly awry. I won’t trouble you with the details, other than to say that Covid-19 hit close to home. Both parents hospitalized, both now recovering. When I had a minute during this familial crisis, I retreated to music I already knew. I didn’t have time or focus to concentrate on new music. But I believe I’m back now, as I await the other shoe to fall.
Brittany Howard’s debut solo album Jamie is an incredible collection from the former front of the Alabama Shakes. It seems the Shakes may be done shaking now that Howard’s getting widespread acclaim as a solo artist, in addition to working with two other bands, the Bermuda Triangle Band and Thunderbitch. The wonderfully aggressive “13thCentury Metal” is like a manifesto of hope. “We are all brothers an sisters” she repeats over and over, becoming gradually more insistent as the buzzy background builds. “Goat Head” was inspired by an incident in her childhood. She was raised in Alabama by a white mother and a black father. One night the family’s car tires were slashed and an actual head of a goat was left in the back seat. The album was titled for Howard’s late sister. The two girls were very close when Jamie tragically died at thirteen of retinoblastoma, a rare pediatric eye cancer. Howard has a lot to say on this album. “Stay High” is perhaps my favorite Howard song ever, not to mention the perfect song for a toke (“I already feel like doing it again”). “We smile and laugh and jump and clap/And yell and holler and just feel great.” Amen sister! This album cements Howard’s place amongst the great talents of the last decade.
Somehow it’s been thirty-six years since the Pet Shop Boys hit it big with “West End Girls” and there’s no sign of them slowing down. Hotspot is the British synthpop duo’s fourteenth album and it’s vintage Neil Tenant and Chris Lowe. One reviewer lauded its “potential joy amid a backdrop of dread.” Which I guess has been the Boys’ tenor all along. The slow-motion “You Are the One” is a sweet love song enriched by the clarity of the sixty-five year old Tenant’s vocals. The single “Dreamland” is a collaboration with fellow English electropop Olly Alexander from Years & Years and enjoyed some crossover success late last year. There are weak spots (“Hoping for a Miracle”) but for the most part there’s a lot more to like than not here. The Boys have always had a significant gay following and it’s nice to see a tip of the hat on songs like “Wedding in Berlin,” where an infectious dance beat is interrupted with sporadic traditional organ chords of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” to the lyrics “We’re getting married/A lot of people do it/Don’t matter if they’re straight or gay.”
Sexy new single by Bronze the Whale dropped today with an extra special soothing groove. “Austin Is Fading” shows off this indie duo’s electronic scope. Gave a listen to their last full-length LP The Shape of Things and found it a chill and enjoyable ride for the most part. “Cruising” kicks things off with a sweet synth beat over soaring vocals. They utilize a nice voice box effect on “Patterns” which was a nice throw back to the Peter Frampton days.
And since I’ve wandered accidentally into a disco moment, I’ll mention De Lux, a post-disco DIY duo from Los Angeles. A couple weeks ago they released the single “Cool Up” which really struck a retro chord with me, so I anxiously checked out their full-length More Disco Songs About Love, and found a few nice moments despite the ridiculous song titles. There are times when the comparison to the Talking Heads and David Byrne seems fair, like in “Writing Music,” or the most-recent single. Still, it might be a little premature to bring up such legends.
Call it manipulative marketing but releasing Poolside’s latest single in the middle of winter is kind of brilliant. “Around the Sun” is happy and harmonic and ultimately transported me to a Malibu beach party in July. Even the band’s name feels summery. I liked it so much I rushed over to check out their 2012 debut Pacific Standard Time and found it an incredible display of electronica. DJ Jeffrey Paradise and bassist Flip Nikolic said they wanted to make a “groovy, daytime disco album.” While I’m not sure how disco is different in the daytime, I can’t argue with the motivation, or the outcome. “Can’t Get You Off My Mind” is even sprinkled with what sounds like breaking waves, or perhaps that’s just where my brain took me. Can’t wait to hear “Golden Hour” at the beach sometime soon. Other highlights include “Between the Dreams,” “Why You Wanna,” “California Sunset” and “Lightenup,” although all of it is wonderful. I don’t always love covers, particularly without a fresh take. But Poolside’s cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” is a phenomenal interpretation of an already brilliant song. No doubt long-time fans are thrilled to have “Around the Sun” while they eagerly await what is soon to be a new full-length record.
Wandering the vinyl section at Amoeba’s in Hollywood and randomly picked up Weighing of Heart by Nabihah Iqbal. Never heard of this British-Pakistani producer, nor by the stage name she once used, Throwing Shade. This record from 2017 offers a super cool indie electronic sound behind new wave-ish beats. Particularly enjoyed “Zone 1 to 6000″ and its sober take on the monotony of life (“Escape on Friday, get caught on Monday.”) Sadly I can’t find an explanation for the term Zone 1 to 6000. The opening track, “Eden Piece,” is a dreamy piece with subtle piano tappings. Iqbal appears to be somewhat influenced by New Order (see “Saw U Twice”), or at least I was pleasantly taken in that direction. Full disclosure, I didn’t buy the vinyl version, although the cover is stunning in its simplicity and was the reason I picked it up in the first place.
Bob Mould has released nine full-length records since the last time I paid attention to him. The two records he did with Sugar in the mid Nineties remain among my all-time favorites. But the only solo album of his I was aware of until tonight was Black Sheets of Rain, which didn’t grab me like his Sugar songs did. Gave a listen to Mould’s 2016 Patch The Sky and was pleasantly surprised to hear Bob can still destroy it on guitar. His rifts are so unmistakabley Bob Mould they might even be thought of as formulaic. But hard driving, distorted guitar jams are his thing. Conversely his vocals can feel almost comforting at times against a backdrop of such pounding rhythms. He has one speed: blistering (with a couple exceptions). But that’s why his fans love him. We want red meat and Bob Mould (still) delivers.
I glanced at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival (M3F) lineup with particular interest since it’s held in my hometown (Phoenix) and seems to get bigger every year. Not that I’ll ever go back and attend. My days at huge music festivals are probably over. I love hearing bands live, but everything else involved in getting there and out sounds like a royal pain. Plus, my home is comfy and my headphones are good so I can have an amazing musical experience without leaving my apartment. Like I did today, listening to Set In Stone by Stick Figure, who are scheduled at M3F along with Bon Iver, Rufus du Sol and a bunch of others. I picked this 2015 record because most of the top songs on Spotify are from it (and not last year’s Word on Fire). I soon found out why. Set in Stone is exponentially better. I can’t help but call them white boy reggae, or maybe reggae light is more politically correct. Either way, if you approach it without any preconceived ideas about reggae, you’ll probably find a lot to like. My favs are “Sounds of the Sea,” “Choice Is Yours” and “Out the Door,” but it’s all really good, despite being mostly monotone. My tolerance for sustained reggae beats is pretty low, but I’ll have a hard time over dosing on Set In Stone.
I’m reading a collection of Lester Bangs columns he wrote in the early ‘70s for rock zeens Creem and Rolling Stone and in one of them he describes how thousands of kids had skipped school in Detroit to line up for Jethro Tull tickts and, when it quickly sold out leaving thousands empty handed, a near riot broke out. Bangs goes on to describe Tull frontman Ian Anderson as a “wild-eyed waistcoat-tail-whipping dervish who played long, violent, echo-chamber flute solos as if he were boxing with the instrument.” Oh, to be Lester Bangs. I was aware of Jethro Tull’s status in the annals of rock history, but I’d never heard an entire album of theirs. So I chose Thick as a Brick (1972), mostly because of the gimmick: one song spanning both sides of the album. I was familiar with the “radio version,” about three minutes long. But the official runtime is nearly forty-four minutes, and it’s a flaunting display of musicianship that should qualify as a rock opera. Conceived as a parody, Thick as a Brick was the band’s response to complaints that their previous album, Aqualung, was a “concept album.” Inspired by their fellow Englishmen in the comedy troupe Monty Python, Thick as a Brick weaves a narrative that’s deeply compelling, backed by a musical “score” that’s nothing short of profound. The 25th Anniversary re-release includes a live version (well, twelve minutes of it) recorded at Madison Square Garden in 1978. There’s just enough crowd noise in the mix to make you feel like you’re in that moment, and it’s superb.
It’s been twenty years since I paid much attention to Freedy Johnston, so I didn’t have high hopes when I stumbled upon his 2015 release Neon Repairman. Even musicians I love eventually seem to fizzle out. But not Freedy. This obscure folkrock singer released a ton of great stuff in the Nineties and was considered among the consummate songwriters of his era. Can You Fly from 1992 was one of my favorites at the time (it’s sadly not available on Spotify; I was forced to reminisce via Youtube). His voice and songwriting chops are as solid as ever on Neon Repairman. The title track is a haunting piece that’s typically Freedy, which is to say rather poetic. The protagonist repairs what brings light to others, despite being in the dark and behind the scenes himself. The harmonies on “Baby, Baby Come Home” are pure perfection. He can follow up a simply little ditty like “Broke Street Light” with “The First to Leave the World,” a song that makes you stop and wonder what exactly he means by “the first to leave the world is the first to see the world.” But that’s what Freedy does best, offer up wonderful little songs that make you think. I’m so glad to hear nothing has changed with Freedy Johnston. Sighhhh.
In passing the Black Pumas might sound like another respectful throughback to the Sam Cooke and Al Greene eras. Yet there’s something remarkably original about their funk-soul self-titled debut. Not long ago, frontman Eric Burton was strumming for cash in front of an open guitar case on the Santa Monica Pier before somebody suggested to producer Adrian Quesada that he might be the perfect fit for Quesada’s project. The two joined up in 2017 to form the Pumas and just like that they’re up for a Grammy. The deeply soulful “Colors” with its call for unity drew widespread attention to the record. But all ten tracks are fantastic. Of particular note is the haunting “OCT 33” (a love song about a day that never comes?). For my money, the Black Pumas should win this Grammy, but they’re clear underdogs in a field with Billie Eilish, Lizzo and Lil Nas X. Not surprisingly the Pumas are scheduled to appear at Coachella this year.
Fell into a Dwight Yoakam rabbit hole and found Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… I’m not sure anyone in modern music has aged better than Dwight Yoakum (other than, of course, Dolly Parton). This is essentially a thirtieth anniversary album consisting of previously released Yoakam songs (plus a nice rework of Prince‘s “Purple Rain”) all backed by a bluegrass band. There’s still Yoakam’s hillbilly Bakersfield feel and plenty of beautiful picking and strumming. He reprises “Two Doors Down,” one of the great drinking/heartache songs of all time. This version is solid, and Dwight makes a clear case that his vocals are as strong as ever (it’s not an easy song to sing). The strings and backing vocals are nice. But I’ll always go back to the original, from This Time in 1993. Is there an alcoholic alive who can’t relate to this song? Swimmin’ Pools is an outstanding freshening up of Yoakam classics. And in keeping with tradition, his cowboy hat remains permanently affixed (at least in public). In case you’re wondering, his only remaining hair is what’s poking out around the edges.
Listening to British psychedelic pop band Glass Animals is a little like taking a magic carpet ride. How To Be A Human Being (2016) begins with the gentle strumming of harp strings before a tribal beat takes over and launches us into a grove that foretells things to come. So many great cuts here, but particularly liked the album closer “Agnes,” a dreamy mix of sound that ultimately leads to a catchy chorus. The tone contradicts the song’s narrative, that of loss of a loved one via suicide. The rich synth beat backs the painfully beautiful lyrics: “Guess life is long when soaked in sadness/On borrowed time from Mr. Madness.” The disc is otherwise a trippy pop experience, rich with images of sonic ray guns, cookies as drink coasters, pineapples in the head, and eating mayonnaise out of a jar. What, you might be asking, does all this mean? I’m not sure it matters, because this record is as fun to “see” as well as hear. Their debut ZABA in 2014 is solid, too (particularly the cuts “Gooey,” “Hazy” and “Toes”). But overall I think I prefer this most recent disc. Look for Glass Animals at this year’s Bonnaroo and Okeechobee festivals.
Circles by Mac Miller was released yesterday after more than a year in production following the twenty-six year old’s accidental drug overdose in 2018. The mood on Circles is mostly lo-fi and chill while the companion, 2018’s Swimming, was a more rap influenced disc, with contributions by Snoop Dogg and Thundercat. The premise of two discs was to explore two distinct musical styles, like swimming in a circle. On Circles, anxiety and a cluttered mind are constant themes, set to infectious grooves spanning rap, funk, and trip-hop. On “Good News” he laments: “I spent the whole day in my head/Doin’ a little spring cleaning/I’m always too busy dreaming. I assume producer Jon Brion deserves considerable credit, since he took over this project after Miller’s death. Brion has worked with such introspective artists as Rufus Wainwright, Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple, making him the perfect person to continue with Miller’s vision here.
I usually hear enough music every day to stumble across something worthy of praise or condemnation. Today was not one of those days, and I’m nearly into my third hour of trying. I liked Black Focus by Yussef Kamaal, but it’s a jazz album and I can’t make an educated assessment of most jazz. I hear it, I like it, but I don’t really know good from bad. In a genre more my speed, gave Band of Horses a spin, specifically Why Are You Ok (2016). Definitely has its moments, although I didn’t really start connecting until the forth cut, “Casual Party.” It seemed to blossom a little from there. “In A Draw” is catchy with nice harmonies. “Whatever, Wherever” is quite lovely. But I’m not overly excited by the Horses, although I haven’t written them off, either.
More than a little intrigued by James Hamilton Leithauser after hearing his 2016 collaboration with Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij. Leithauser once fronted a band I’ve never heard of, The Walkmen, and recorded seven albums with them. From this collaboration with Batmanglij, the song “1000 times” seems familiar and likeable. The best cut is the woozy and instantly memorable “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up).” Like a drunken swagger it features what sounds like a harpsipiano and a bar full of people partying, even clinking glasses! Ultimately a saxophone breaks in for a fun impvo that winds down with a sloppy group clap and sing along. Beware of earworm!
This is a politics-free zone, but I was way too interested
in an album released today in support of a 2020 presidential candidate. Bernie Sanders … with the Community is a
collection of twenty songs by mostly DIY musicians and bands, none of whom
you’ve probably heard of, with such names as Cool Original, Bears, Pleasure Systems and (my favorite name)
Blush Cameron. The record is a tough
listen, with a couple exceptions. Someone by the name of Dylan M. Howe offers the decent electronica cut “Blush of Youth.” Wild Pink is probably the best known of
all the acts with a half million listens. Here he covers “Lonesome Highway” by Shane McGowan of The Pogues. Decent. You can listen to the whole thing for free like
I did at stereogum.com, unless you’re eager to support the bands and Bernie.
Trying to wrap up my Top 10 list for 2016 before going live with Music4Savita (side note: purchased the domain name today!). I’d heard and enjoyed several cuts from the rock/folk group The Lumineers‘ second album, Cleopatra. But now I know the rest of it is just as solid, like what Mumford & Sons might be had they not, what, sold out? Petered out? A really special collection of tunes, the inspiration for which came from a conversation lead singer Westley Shultz had with a random taxi driver whom he later dubbed Cleopatra. The experience and the album’s songs were later made into a short film tilted The Ballad of Cleopatrain which the middle-aged woman driver laments the direction her life had taken. The title song begins: “I was Cleopatra, I was young and and actress/When you knelt by my mattress and asked for my hand.” (Note to self: watch the video). Stumbled across the Lumineers’ live set they recorded at the KEXP studio in Seattle and found “Flowers in Your Hair” to be a lovely and fun little song! Digging their vibe, and the cello!
In more Jim James news, Uniform Clarityis a much better platform for vocals than Uniform Distortion, my least favorite disc of his so far. Maybe one record, with a combination of Distortionand Claritycuts, would have sufficed.
Still in my Jim James moment. After hearing Uniform Clarity I’m considering James for knighthood. This is the companion piece to Uniform Distortion (which came out first), and is an acoustic interpretation of the same songs. I intentionally listened in reverse order, having read about both discs beforehand. I had an inkling of what I might hear on something called Distortion, particularly when it required explanation (my word) with something called Clarity. Wanting to know what I was getting into, I chose Clarity first. At times, particularly in falsetto, I hear my hero Dave Matthews, like on “No Secrets”. Other times I hear John Prine. In “Better Late Than Never” I hear Dylan. Then Peter Himmelman (who I haven’t thought of in years). Then Jeff Tweedy! I mean I think Jim James has a distinctive voice. I know I really like it. But he sure as hell makes me think of a lot of other singers. Most of these songs are stripped down, because, James says, he was going for the effect of early recording technology, “when all you could hear was the truth.” The exception to this rule is “Too Good To Be True,” where he throws in some amazing vocal effects. The last two cuts are not included on Distortion and are both fantastic.
There are so many genres and sub categories of music these days it’s like browsing the paint chips display at Home Depot, each one slightly different enough to warrant its own name. The subset dubstep came onto my radar today while checking out The Colour In Anything by James Blake. Under the electronic dance umbrella, dubstep originated in South London in the late 1990s and is characterized by “sparse, syncopated rhythmic patterns with prominent sub-bass frequencies.” I’m not sure I get this album, although some are clearly impressed. He’s produced for the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce and Frank Ocean. Most of these songs are nothing more than a vehicle to show off Blake’s vocal chops. So maybe dubstep isn’t for me. But sure do dig the watercolor cover!
The previously mentioned Jim James record Eternally Even continues to astound. His voice is so pleasantly approachable and wispy, often over sustained and hypnotic organ notes. Road tested the entire collection today while biking Venice and Santa Monica boardwalks. Scored a perfect five buds! File under recommended beach/baking accompaniment.
Who knows where all this artificial intelligence stuff will take us. I mean those sex robots are really catching on I hear. And if we’re switching up how we get off, here’s the perfect “artificial” music to listen to while doing it: Holly Herndon’s PROTO. A laptop and her voice are the only instruments used here, and who knows how much of the voices we hear are actually human. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because it’s cool as hell and brilliantly composed. Can we call it music if everything we hear is created by software? Is it real? Is anything real? Who the fuck cares. It’s experimental, complex and an incredible audio journey. Do yourself a favor. Smoke first. And during.
Listened to Frank Ocean‘s debut channel ORANGE (2012) “start to finish.” I understand the hype now. This disc feels as relevant today as it must have eight years ago, whether he’s lamenting privileged slackers (“Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends/Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends”), unemployed guys mooching off their stripper girlfriends in “Pyramids,” or the hapless manchild pouring out his heart to a Muslim cab drivers (“Bad Religion”).
Frank Ocean’sBlonde (2016) made a couple different albums of the decade lists. That coupled with the announcement that he’s headlining Coachella, it was finally time for me to pay attention. What I found was an extraordinary body of work. A blend of hip-hop and RnB, Blonde is a deeply moving way to spend an hour thinking about where we are as a people and how we connect, or not. It kicks off with a tribute to several modern-day fallen black heros including Trayvon Martin, the unarmed seventeen-year-old black man who was shot and killed by an off-duty security guard and who became one of the many faces of the tragic modern-day epidemic of excessive force being used against people of color. The album kicks off with Ocean’s seemingly helium-induced vocals, as he sings: “RIP Trayvon, that nigga looked just like me.” This is largely a languid and minimal record that finds Ocean contemplating a variety offsetting emotions, sometimes colored by psychedelic enhancements. Much of it bemoans the ebb and flow of love and lust in today’s environment.In Siegfried, he laments: “Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought that could think of the dreamer in the thought.” Not sure exactly what it means, but it sure got me thinking. I know I’m late to the Frank Ocean party, but at least I’m here now! You know how you hear a song that hits super close to home at that moment? “Self Control.” That is all.
My Morning Jacket is one of those bands I’ve heard of for years but couldn’t name a single one of their songs. Lead singer Jim James broke off in 2016 to release his first solo, Eternally Even, which made several Best Of lists, so time for me to check him out. First, though, I dipped my toe in the MMJ pool, specifically “Wordless Chorus” and “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Parts,” parts one and two. Amazing stuff, and totally new to my ears. The last minute of “Touch Me” is mesmerizing, as is the entire eight-plus minutes of it. A faint wa-wa effect gradually slows to a plodding, piano repetition that’s nothing short of chilling. They must be amazing live. More on Jim James later. For now I’ll only say “The World’s Smiling Now” is my go-to, feel-good, the world’s-not-going-to-end, I’m-okay-you’re-okay song right now. So soothing and beautiful. Think I’ll go listen to it again.
I never listened to Van’ Morrison‘s Too Long in Exile when it first came out in 1993, probably because I was deep in my blues phase then. I was a purist, and people like Robert Cray and certainly Van Morrison weren’t real blues guys. Yeah Morrison could display a deep soul when he sang. But he was more jazz than blues. All the blues crossover stuff at the time – from legends like John Lee Hooker and B.B. King — put me off. So I avoided Too Long in Exile, until tonight. It’s mostly straight ahead, polished blues, but the two cuts with John Lee Hooker are exceptional, including “Gloria,” the immortalized song written by Morrison a few months after I was born (damn, Gloria and I are old farts). It wasn’t a blues song then, but he and Hooker collaborate here for a killer interpretation in twelve-bar progression. Unaware until now that “Gloria” was actually the B-side of the single “Baby, Please Don’t Go” by the group Them, which Morrison fronted when he first started out. In a sign of how backwards things used to be, the song was banned in some communities, including the Chicago station WLS, because it contained the phrase: “She comes to my room.” Also, found a loose interpretation by Patti Smith from her 1975 Horses, that begins with the great line: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/But not mine.”
Nothing could make me feel older than my college hero and
former REM frontman Michael Stipe turning sixty, but he did
just that this past Saturday. To mark the occasion he released “Drive to the
Ocean,” yet another dire warning about global warming set to music (admirably
he’s donating the proceeds to Pathway to Paris, an advocacy group fighting for
The Paris Climate Agreement). Not sure if I’m sadder about Stipe’s (and my) advancing
years, or the song itself, which left me, for lack of a better word, bored.
It’s so new the lyrics aren’t even on the internet yet. So I transcribed them myself and, to my absolute amazement, I understood every word on the first listen! How very un-REM! Among Stipe’s charms were his indecipherable lyrics. In the late Nineties, when I logged on to the internet for one of the first times ever, I googled the lyrics to my favorite REM songs. It was like opening a treasure chest because REM never included lyrics in their liner notes. That coupled with Stype’s mumbling made for some frustrating sing-alongs. “Drive to the Ocean” could benefit from some garbled words (“We stand at the water/The wind and the sun/Where all of god’s creatures/Are gathered as one.”) Yawwwwn. Hey Michael, my good man, the planet needs all the help it can get. Next time, maybe try a little harder.
When you stumble on the name of a new band three times in a week, maybe it’s a sign that something’s up. The five members of Fontaines D.C. met while attending a music institute in Dublin and initially released a collection of poetry before collaborating on something musically. The name came from Fontaines the character in The Godfather, and Dublin City. Their first full-length album, released last April, is titled Dogrel, an homage to a working-class poetry known as Doggerel, characterized by irregular rhythm and rhyme. It’s post-punk, garage rock in your face sound is reminiscent of The Pogues or dare I say The Clash. Grian Chatten’s thick Irish accent and monotone delivery even deepen the authenticity. In a statement the band says the album is “about the weight of the world that’s pressing against you, and struggling to find a balance, an equilibrium.” Sounds super relevant. Today’s introduction to the Fontaines is like finding something I’d misplaced thirty years ago. It’s simply phenomenal. Can’t get enough of the spastic “Boys in the Better Land” (“If you’re a rock star, porn star, supersar/Doesn’t matter what you are/Get yourself a good car, get outta here.” The opening track (“Big”) clocks in at less than two minutes but packs a lethal punch and portends the poetic lyricism to come. “Dublin in the rain is mine/A pregnant city with a catholic mind/Starch those sheets for the birdhouse jail/All mescalined when the past is stale, pale.” This album is hard to put down. They’ll be at Coachella this year, btw.
I’m pretty uneducated in rap. I have nothing against it. I often like what I do hear. But I don’t really seek it out. Tyler, The Creator is categorized as rap, and in fact won the Grammy for Best Rap Album of the Year. But rap only begins to describe it. There are so many compelling layers to IGOR that the end product defies classification. All I know is it’s the closest thing to a rap album I’ve listened to start to finish. And my life is definitely enriched because of it. Playboi Carti joins Dev Hynes from Blood Orange and Charlie Wilson on the incredible single “Earfquake” that pleads for a former lover to return. “Your love is shakin’ me up and it’s making my heart break/Cause you make my earth quake.” There’s lots of heartbreak here, but that’s part of his irresistible appeal. Calling himself The Creator might seem a bit presumptuous, but he does seem to create an experience that’s more than musical. And then there’s the whole persona and theatrics. At first the blond bob wig felt gratuitous until I realized it’s kind of essential. I know I’m the last person on earth to be introduced to Tyler, The Creator, but just in case I’m not, you might give IGOR a listen. It’s phenomenal.
With Australia wild fires turning into a raging inferno from hell, I can’t help but think about all the musicians I’ve loved over the years from that country.The very first concert I ever attended (without adult supervision) was Olivia Newton John, whom I spent many years adoring and whose poster-sized image hung in my dorm room (briefly) until I went in a different Aussie direction, Men at Work. God how I loved Business as Usual! After college was a Midnight Oil phase while INXS was a staple for many years. More recently it’s been TheTemper Trap and Tame Impala. But my absolute favorite Aussie at the moment is Courtney Barnett, specifically her 2015 album Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit. I’ll write more on that album later. Just hoping the good folks down under, and in particular all those great musicians, stay safe and that life resumes as normal very soon.
After three passes through Signal, the debut album from the all female post-punk trio Automatic, I can say I’m sold and can’t wait for more! A product of the DIY community in LA, they did a month of Mondays at The Echo this past summer then released this stripped-down collection a month later. Mostly simply mixes of vocals, bass, drums and lots of synth, there are numerous highlights here, particularly the title track, the mesmerizing “Highway” and the retro buzzy “Too Much Money.” The vocals are mostly in the background in these songs which gives space for the big electronic punch up front. There’s almost nothing written about Automatic on the inter webs. No wiki page yet, however there is not one but two other bands with the same name, and they both have pages! This might be a good time to consider a name change before things explode. Automatic is a stupid name anyway, apparently chosen as some kind of homage to The Go-Gos, the only all-female band to ever have a number one selling album (Beauty and the Beat), which includes the single “Automatic.” One of the few things on line said Automatic is “highly recommended for fans of the Savages, Suicide and NEU! Having never heard of any of those bands, I went directly to the Spotify machine and found an amazing instrumental jam, a song called “Hallogallo” from the German krautrock band NEU! Released in 1972, it sounds nothing like Automatic, but I thank that random reviewer for the non sequitur. NEU! consists of two former members of the legendary group Kraftwerk, whose work in the early ‘70s in Europe is considered groundbreaking in electronic music circles.
Fell into a George Harrison rabbit hole thanks to The Seventies on CNN, a documentary perfect for burning off a New Year’s Day hangover, although that’s something I haven’t experienced in five years (stupid sobriety!). Anyway, I know less about Harrison’s solo stuff than the other fab three, so I put on All Things Must Pass, his epic triple album from 1970, considered the best of all The Beatles’ solo efforts. Produced by convicted killer Phil Spector, it was a huge hit and spent multiple weeks at the top of the charts. But all these decades later, it just doesn’t hold up for me. The songs are mostly dull, as is the musicianship. There are times it’s downright insufferable, like “Beware of Darkness” and “I Dig Love.” I give Harrison credit fir at least avoiding cookie-cutter pop songs. But what it offers in ambition it lacks in delivery. His voice is mundane and tedious. The most enjoyable cuts are the ones that get the most airplay. It was nice to hear “My Sweet Lord” again, and compare it back-to-back with The Chiffons “He’s So Fine” (the Chiffons successfully sued Harrison for stealing the song, and it’s pretty obvious). But I could have gone the rest of my life without hearing “If Not For You” again. “Awaiting on You All” and the closing cut “Hear Me Lord” are a little too religious-y for my taste. In order to kill some of the two hours it took to listen to it all, I walked back and forth from Melrose to Santa Monica Boulevard, trying my hardest not to hit the fast forward button. I simply endured this collection. It wasn’t until the third disc, subtitled the Apple Jam, that things started to get interesting. Nothing more than four simple, improvised blues jams, they don’t came close to the best blues jams I’ve heard, but still pretty adventurous for a former Beatle.