Wednesday, December 28, 2011

End of 11: Best Albums, 10-1

10 Tom Waits - Bad As Me: Tom Waits operates on his own schedule on all fronts--releasing music, touring, talking to the media. He probably shows up late to cocktail parties and celebrates major holidays on arbitrary dates, too. There's no pinning him down, you see. But after a seven year layoff, WAITS NATION was ready for a fresh LP, and Tom Terrific delivered this October. Bad As Me is just about as comprehensive a modern-day Waits album as you'll hear. Brawlers ("Chicago", "Raised Right Men"), bastards ("Talking at the Same Time", "Hell Broke Luce") and bawlers ("Last Leaf", "Pay Me", "New Year's Eve") abound. Recommended for anyone with an interest getting their feet wet. But remember, it's brackish lakewater. In a good way, though. And if you don't think "Chicago" fucking owns, then slide on a pencil skirt and sip your Bacardi/Diet, nancy boy.

9 Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest: Sharing a curious symmetry with Waits, Gil also scratched her seven-year itch (heh) in 2011 by releasing her first effort since Soul Journey. She cited a creative block as the reason for the layoff. Good on Gillian for maintaining her own high standards, as the near-decade it took to arrive at Harrow was evidently well spent. It showcases some of Gil and Dave's most immaculate songwriting to date, including the long-anticipated studio debut of "The Way It Will Be." There really isn't a whiff on the disc. It doesn't top Revelator in my book (nothing ever will, pretty much) but it's another win for Gil and Dave.

8 Bon Iver - Bon Iver: Recently anointed Album of the Year by Pitchfork, Justin Vernon's sophomore disc was essentially For Emma on steroids. Bigger, denser, more fractured and complex from a songcraft perspective, but still brimming with wintery introspection, even though it came out in June. Keeping this one brief, but for further reading on this album, look pretty much anywhere on the internet.

7 Man Man - Life Fantastic: Honus Honus and his crew sound like a band made up of cartoon bad guys. I consider this an asset, although plenty would deem it acerbic. I'm a student of Tom Waits, so my tolerance is high. Of course, Tom Waits at his weirdest makes Man Man sound like Wham!, but these Philly bros can hold their own in the oddball department. Production credit goes to Bright Eyes multitalent Mike Mogis. Dude masterfully layers complementary melodies and balances an instrument-heavy tracking approach that somehow never clutters. These qualities shine through when the album's at its best--take the Far East-tinged "Haute Tropique" or the fiery "Dark Arts." Lyric of the year: "These days I feel like a pariah/an albatross with my feathers on fire."

6 Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean: Remember when Iron and Wine was just Sam Beam whispering a Flaming Lips cover into a condenser mic? Remember that shit? Since then, the bearded-South-Carolinian-indie-dude-who-isn't-Ben-Bridwell's sound has evolved an unrivaled vibrance. I'm a firm supporter of his aesthetic trajectory, so KEOC is butter to me. He even gets away with a blatant I-V-vi-IV progression on "Walking Far From Home." While Sam won't take home his second HSW album of the year--no doubt sending a shockwave through the I&W camp--he's holding steady near the top. Not bad for "bitch folk."

5 Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo: Smoke Ring pretty much lived in my car all summer, soundtracking my drives through the oppressive Carolina heat as I shlepped from band practice to softball games to who knows what else. There's a prescient lyric in album closer "Ghost Town": "When I'm driving I feel like I'm dreaming/jamming tunes and drifting." IT'S LIKE HE'S SINGING ABOUT ME, GUYS! The grumbly mope-ster drags his words through ambient folk landscapes, yet lyrics never come off as overly pitiful. Vile achieves a lonesome grandiose through downer anthems like "Baby's Arms" and "Runner Ups", wherein he makes no bones about his selective aloofness. "I get sick of just about everyone/and I hide in my baby's arms," he laments in the former, conjuring a sentiment to which most anyone can relate. Also his name sounds like he could have been the WWF Intercontinental Champion in 1997. "KURT VILE TAKES ON DIESEL IN THE SUMMERSLAM MAIN EVENT."

4 Wilco - The Whole Love: So happy am I to slot Wilco's eighth LP as high as it is on this list. My reaction to the past two Wilco albums have generally followed a trajectory of "excited," "defensive," "accepting," before arriving at the sad realization that it just isn't up to snuff. "This album's great! Fuck off with your Art Brut bullshit! Fine, it's not one of their best, but... Damnit, you're right, this isn't their best effort." When The Whole Love came out, I was enamored with the sheer Wilcocity of it all. Noise sections! Strange chords! No lyrics about lawnmowing! Perhaps Tweedy and co. have found it again? Of course, a slight lull in the midsection bred some doubt (I still think "Open Mind" is a weak effort, and "Capitol City" would have benefited from Tweedy singing in a lower register and spending a minute longer in lyric R&D.) The album finds the band refocusing, reminding the greater music community that there's a reason Wilco is considered one of the most influential bands of the past two decades. I like that they're (perhaps subconsciously) drawing on eras past. For instance, the quirky Americana Newman-clone "Capitol City" is a Being There relic. "Dawned On Me" and "Born Alone" align with Summerteeth's indie-pop charm. A Ghost Is Born might have welcomed the inclusion of "One Sunday Morning" and "Rising Red Lung." But despite the broad range of styles, it's all so very cohesive. I'm proud to place this one in the higher tier of the band's catalog, and I'm equally as excited that their best days as a creative entity are not entirely behind them.

3 Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues: Took me a minute to warm to Helplessness Blues. There aren't so many outright hooks as you'd find on their self-titled debut, which, incidentally, was the 2008 HSW record of the year. Helplessness shows itself over the course of several listens, through folk movements and unorthodox (but coherent) song structures. And, yes, they're still singing the shit out of those 36 part harmonies or whatever. The only chink in HB's armor comes at the tail end of "The Shrine/An Argument", when a freeform jazz section overstays its welcomes. Beyond that, it's a proverbial gallery of bright, sprawling songscapes that yields one of the most satisfying listening experiences of 2011. They also absolutely crushed it live.

2 Felice Brothers - Celebration, Florida: I'd long assumed there was a ceiling over the Felice Brothers -- a tin sheet or a vaulted barn roof would, if we're extending the metaphor to their ramshackle shtick. But when I saw the band perform live in late 2010, something strange happened. Interspersed among their folky ballads and shambling roots rockers were new songs laced with punched-up electronic influences. It wasn't bad or anything, but it was an intriguing curve ball. This tease was seen through when Celebration, Florida dropped back in May. On paper, it had disaster written all over it. But lo, the Felices goddamn did it. Instead of blippy samples haphazardly slapped on folk songs, we instead heard measured and thoughtful integration of these elements that logically complemented the music. Perhaps the best example of this is lead single "Ponzi", easily one of the most compelling dancerock tracks about to white collar crime I heard all year! The menacing "Fire At the Pageant" continues the band's streak of Grade A album openers. But the best moment arrives at the other end of Celebration, Florida, when Ian Felice fucking unleashes on "River Jordan." The song's A-section is a charged ballad, good enough on its own. But, like the titular river bursting into rapids (ed: metaphor may not be geographically accurate), the tempo picks up and Ian Felice belts out the most inspired vocal stretches I heard this year. It caps off an adventure of an album that's hard not to celebrate...ion, Florida! Goddamnit I'm clever.
1 Megafaun - Megafaun: You know when an album seems tailor-made for you? As if the band had an inspirational plaque mounted on the studio wall that read, "Would (insert your name) like your next musical decision?" It took precisely one full listen to determine that, for me, Megafaun is one of those albums. It's a wire-to-wire win for the North Carolina trio on an LP that covers a ton of territory, from mind-melting jammy jams to instrumental movements to ballads both meek and booming to blue-eyed soul, all threaded together by the band's mellow-creme vocals and textured swaths of synthetic ambience. The wandering "Get Right" is the album's eight and a half minute crown jewel. It's a driving rocker that gives way to a swirling extended outro, the kind of stretch that's made for reflective late-night highway drives. Megafaun is highly collaborative, as you'll note from the digital information: for each track save for one, the artist is listed as "Megafaun with:" followed by whomever else had a hand in that particular song. Indeed, the aforementioned range of the album reflects this cavalcade of players. Megafaun was clearly interested in getting a little help from their friends, and the results validate that approach. Special props to "Isadora", the lush instrumental that experiments with the melody of "Auld Lang Syne", ducking between keys and playing off major/minor variations. Unfortunately, perfection eludes the album, tarnished only by a gawd-awful (though thankfully brief) vocal turn on "Everything" by someone named Frazey Ford, who I'm sure isn't a classically bad singer, but in context, her throaty wails are slightly more aggravating than a fuckton of nails screaming infinitely down a chalkboard. But hey, 99% is still an A+, so I'll divinely forgive. Megafaun may not get as much ink as their former D'Armond Edison bandmate Justin Vernon (known to the indie kids as the Bon Iver dude and to 2012 Grammy audiences as "Who the fuck is Bawn Eye-ver?"), they should hold them heads high, because there's at least one dude who thinks they made the better album.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

End of 11: Best Albums, 30-11

30 Cary Ann Hearst - Lions & Lambs: Big year for Cary Ann (and husband Michael Trent), who found a spot on the Americana tour circuit as reliable openers for the likes of Justin Townes Earl and Jason Isbell. Carry Ann's solo album dropped earlier this year. Shovels and Rope is better, but Hearst's chops are always worth the time.
29 Black Keys - El Camino: December releases always suffer in the polls, but never mind. It's a concise line-up, spotlighting the Keys' trademark snappy licks and tight arrangements. Dan Auerbach continues to develop as a singer.

28 Middle Brother - Middle Brother: Better than any one of the individual members' 2011 releases, it's about what you'd expect. Crunchy folk rock, a smattering of ballads, and one outstanding Replacements cover. It's stupid fun.
27 Fionn Regan - 100 Acres of Sycamore: I'd largely ignored Fionn since his outstanding debut back in 2007. But I heard good things about 100AOS, and I wasn't disappointed. Orchestral, delicate--think dark, starlit snowfields. Able musical complement for the short winter days.
26 Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Mirror Traffic: Coming off the Pavement reunion, I'd imagine Malkmus' was ready to move on from back catalog run-throughs and set out into new creative territory. I don't think any of his solo stuff sounds far removed from Pavement, which is fine as far as I'm concerned. Mirror Traffic: Warm. Sprightly. Soundtrack to the late summer broil.
25 Yellowbirds - The Color: Saw these guys open for Josh Ritter and was pleasantly surprised by how magnetic their set was, particularly lead singer Sam Cohen's vocals. It's easy to get excited when you hear an opener who's not horrible, but that usually fizzles quick. But I saw The Color on some blog site and it turns out it's worth its salt.

24 The Low Anthem - Smart Flesh: It's not the crowning achievement of either of their last two albums, but Smart Flesh had its moments. The Low Anthem spends most of their time sounding like the musical equivalent of an attic, they do have the ability to plug in. "Boeing 737", for example. Explosive. Electric. Highly smashy. Sidebar: Check out the band's alter-ego, Snake Wagon. The goof-around project released a (free) album only last week, full of silly folk numbers. But it's actually not half-bad. Certainly a few worthy tracks to be found within.
23 Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire: Not a wholesale return to form, but Ryan veered away from the pop-rock highway down which he's cruise-controlled since putting a bow on his 2005 trilogy. Ashes isn't immaculate, but it's got enough stirring content to remind you why his fans expect so much of him.

22 Atlas Sound - Parallax: Coming on the heels of the brilliant Halcyon Digest, Bradford Cox stepped away from Deerhunter to focus on his Atlas Sound project. The verbed-out Parallax isn't all that different from Halcyon, but it has an experimental streak that distinguishes it as an imperfect but fascinating side project.

21 Feist - Metals: Opener "The Bad In Each Other" is one of the best damn tracks I heard all year, but is it telling that it's about the only one that sticks in my subconscious? In fairness it was competing for spins with the likes of Wilco, Megafaun, and Tom Waits, so I'm not sure I gave it a fair shake. 
20 Black Lips - Arabia Mountain: Sloppy and raucous, a nice turn-to when I'm feeling a little caffeinated. "Family Tree" on repeat? Guilty.

19 Cass McCombs - Humor Risk: Since WITS END didn't really do it for me, I was happy to hear Cass was releasing a second LP in 2011. Humor Risk hasn't had long to settle, but it's already more inviting (as McCombs' music goes, anyway.) It's lively and thoughtful, but grounded by McCombs' sorrowful vocals. Is he Mark Kozelek's kid brother? Cause he sounds like Mark Kozelek's kid brother.

18 TV On the Radio - 9 Types of Light: Not quite the earthshaker that either Dear Science or Return to Cookie Mountain were, TVOTR's latest still offers plenty of the band's trademark art-rock soulfulness. "Keep Your Heart" is a top tier effort, and their catching live show only magnified the appeal of the new material.

17 Richard Buckner - Our Blood: An expectedly minimilast effort from a guy who keeps on chugging, despite a lifetime of underappreciation. Fraying downerfolk, massaged by Buckner's aching baritone. Not overly complex or grand, it delivers the kind of gutpunch that you just don't find outside of sad bastard Americana.

16 Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde: This year's Oracular Spectacular, it's tremendously catchy music made by pretentious young guys who probably wouldn't be doing much else if they weren't making music.

15 Girls - Father Son and Holy Ghost: I sorta thought Girls would be a one-album-wonder. Welp...glad I was wrong. Christopher Owen certainly grasps writing an doe-eyed rocker named after a girl.

14 My Morning Jacket - Circuital: It came as a relief to many when lead single and title track "Circuital" dropped in advance of the album, and it didn't sound like Prince blowing a robot. (I did like Evil Urges, btw.) On the whole, the album's a little safer than necessary, Circuital comes a step closer to golden era MMJ.

13 Toro Y Moi - Underneath the Pine: As I'd hoped, Chaz Bundick was ready to shed his bedroom-producer tag and get back to writing for a full band. While still highly danceable and synth-friendly, Pine is the natural progression for a guy who's no longer hemmed in by a lack of resources.

12 The Decemberists - The King Is Dead: If you'd have asked me in January, I would have told you The King Is Dead was a lock for album of the year. But as the year wore on, I found myself referencing the back catalog more steadily than the new release. King is a wildly successful Americana turn, but I hope the D's don't forget about the well-read weirdness that endeared them to us in the first place.

11 Radiohead - The King of Limbs: Once again, Radiohead released an album only days after announcing it. And like its predecessor In Rainbows, it's an ethereal shadowdwelling affair. Distinctly segmented into halves, the first quartet of songs are defined by blustery electronics and sinister atmospherics. From "Lotus Flower" on, it gets a little less abstract but no less affecting. "Codex" employs a similar piano pattern as all-timer "Pyramid Song", while "Separator" offers a rarity in the Radiohead canon: ending an LP on a relatively upbeat note. There was a modest amount of backlash stemming from the brevity of Limbs--at 8 songs and 37:24, it's the shortest Radiohead album. I'll take a short Radiohead album over a standard-length album by pretty much anyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

End of 11: Various and Sundry Awards

Last year, I crafted a massive series of posts cataloging all the year end fare. But as I've lamented through both words an inactivity, it's not in the cards this year. So here's a pile of shit for you to sort through. Best albums and songs upcoming in later posts. Enjoy!

Late As Usual:
A few artists and albums from years past I finally took the time to appreciate.

Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, etc.: Delved into the off-beat yet beatific world of Palace-era Will Oldham. Haunting fringe-folk dramatics that set the scene for his Bonnie Prince Billy days ahead.

R.E.M.: A band I'd largely taken for granted outside of their radio hits, their earthshaking break-up led me to seek out their massive 2011 greatest hits album.

David Bowie: Hunky Dory, in specific. Incredible, obviously. I love when I finally take the time to check out an album that I know I'll love. It's such a low-risk maneuver with a tremendous pay-off.

Steve Earle: I own a couple Earle albums, but I only passively appreciated him before discovering El Corazon earlier this year. Like all great alt-country albums, it's a rich mix of twang, crunch, and balladry.

Various acclaim, doled out in this season of giving.

Actually Liked This Album: Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire : This isn't really fair to Ryan, as we all know he's fully capable of putting out excellent albums. But my expectations were tepid based on the past few. Empirical evidence suggested an uptick in quality, but I was hesitant to expect it lest I be letdown yet again. But Ryan actually put out a nice fall album, even if it isn't as brilliant as his glory days during the first half of the last decade. 

Finally Clicked: Dr. Dog - Fate: Sometimes it takes a live presentation for studio work to click. Fate stands as one of my most called-upon albums of 2011, thanks to Dr. Dog's outstanding February performance at the Music Farm. 

Singer-Songwriter Album of the Year: Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest: What's interesting is it that Harrow is not my highest-ranked 2011 album by someone who I'd deem a singer-songwriter. Confusing, yes. But as an album, Harrow is the strongest example of an album borne from a single voice (Dave and Gil are essentially that, I'm sure you'd agree.)

New to George Award: Kurt Vile: Just a name in prior years, a chance run-in with "Jesus Freaks" led me ton buy Smoke Ring For My Halo based on nothing more than that single. Considering "Jesus Freaks" isn't in my three favorite songs from the album, I'd say the risk begat rewards.

Now some quick hits:

Comeback of the Year: Wilco - The Whole Love
Instrumental Track of the Year: Megafaun - "Isadora"
Vinny Award (awarded to best debut): Yellowbirds - Color
"Come At Me, Bro" (Song/album I liked in the face of ridicule): Bon Iver - "Beth/Rest". I was actually moderately surprised at the backlash this song endured. Seemed like the perfect coda to me. First time I heard it I was cutting through a North Carolina rural road under a star-peppered sky. Worked well enough for me.

We soldier on: Next we'll have best songs, then best albums. Stay tuned...

Friday, December 16, 2011

2011: HSW staggers across the finish line!

Life's been happening lately, folks, and only in the best of ways. Between my work as a designer and on my own record with my shiny new band, both my time and creativity has been monopolized over the past few months, and may only continue to be so. It's bittersweet, really. I'm vastly proud of this new band, and I'm anticipating a positive response to the record. But this blog was a point of pride for me (as sad as that reads) and it's been tough to watch it fall into dereliction. Especially this time of year, when I get to feel important by making a shitload of lists. It's a process that's snowballed over the past few years. But alas, it's just not going to happen to the same degree as last time around. That is to say, it will be heavily abbreviated and hastily cobbled together.

But defiant, I will provide. Keep an eye out for 2011 wrap-up posts over the next couple of weeks.

Monday, November 14, 2011

October 28, 2011: The Flaming Lips

Flaming Lips
North Charleston Performing Arts Center (Charleston, SC)
October 28, 2011

A fact I've learned about myself as I age is I'm not big into "cult" culture, and by that I mean any slice of pop that appeals to a fervent and specific demographic. I can enjoy cult entertainment. I suppose Monty Python's Life of Brian would be considered a cult film, and it's among my favorites. But it's the ancillary behaviors borne out of the principal works that repel me. For instance, aren't there call-and-response cues throughout Rocky Horror Picture Show? And arriving at a movie premiere in costume always seemed ridiculous to me. (Ed note: I did bring a rubber snake to Snakes on a Plane, but that was tongue-in-cheek.)

One can hardly categorize The Flaming Lips as a cult band, considering they're one of the more titanic indie rock acts on the planet. But there is at least a breed of Lips fans, the so-called "Freaks," who worship at the altar of Wayne Coyne. They take drugs and dress up and gush when Wayne lovingly calls them "motherfuckers"between songs.

There are also those who primarily respect the Lips as a seminal progressive indie-rock act (raises hand.) Soft Bulletin is one of the 90's best records, Yoshimi is a triumph as well; even Embryonic, the Lips' latest LP, was one of my favorites of 2009. I appreciate the band's image and theatrical approach, but it certainly doesn't affect my ability to enjoy their music one way or the other.

I've seen the Lips before, in memorable fashion. I stumbled across a free performance on the National Mall on Earth Day of 2009. Blustery and spitting rain, I lasted only a handful of songs before I retreated to warmer environs, but it was quite a treat. Granted, I would have rather heard standard performances of songs such as, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1" and "Fight Test" instead of the sing-along versions we got. But maybe that approach was due to the festival-like situation. I looked forward to seeing a more standard Flaming Lips performance, if there is such a thing.

364 days after our last experience at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, the lady and I filed into our second row seats, amidst a sea of colored wigs and costumes. Halloween was three nights away, but Freaks habitually dress up as it is, so the bananas and elves and slutty-whatevers filling the rows weren't exactly novel.* The opening act, Talkdemonic, was a two piece post-rock outfit from Portland. As a lyrics guy, post-rock escapes me for the most part, but they were serviceable tonesetters for the evening. I do have a lingering gripe, however: if you're going to be a two-piece band, I find it unfair to supplement with backtracks of other live instruments. Looping is one thing, but just pushing play on a pre-recorded banjo track? You're playing live. How about hiring a banjo player?

After Talkdemonic wrapped, the Lips' crew (which included the Lips themselves) undertook the daunting task of prepping the stage for the multimedia melee on tap. Wayne Coyne doesn't try to protect his mystique--in fact he outright dismisses it, instead relishing in the attention he was awarded for showing himself. He eventually took the mic and offered a cheerfully profane introduction before returning to facilitate the set-up. You have to admire that neither Wayne nor any of the Lips are above being hands on after all these years.

Wayne's intro.

The set opened with the band's four non-Coyne members (keyboardist/guitarist/genius Steve Drozd, drummer Kliph Scurlock, bassist Michael Ivins, and young guitarslinger Derek Brown) emerging from a hidden door in the center the massive, semicircular screen. In true Lips fashion, a spread-eagle naked chick was occupying said screen. So, yes, she gave birth the band members. Meanwhile, Wayne was in his famous hamster ball, and set out on a bee-line to the back row of the sprawling orchestra pit.


The band was flanked by gaggles of slutty Dorothys whose enthusiasm ranged from "upper-fueled mainstage stripper" to "reluctant extra in high school production of The Crucible." The ladies were occasionally joined by enormous inflatable mascots, or a tin man, or a roadie with a fog gun. While I recognize the band's motive for having the girls onstage (bolstering the dance party environment, I guess?) it still seems lowbrow. And the fact that a few of the girls appeared uncomfortable or disinterested didn't exactly convey the level of energy that was intended.

A phalanx of mildly interested Dorothys, which is a sentence I'd never thought I'd write.

But that aside, you can't say the band doesn't know how to entertain. Props and confetti guns and balloons and giant foam hands and lasers--it was all pretty stimulating. Wayne Coyne is an engaging performer, and there's no mistaking his genuine goal for the Flaming Lips experience to be a collective, unyielding celebration. Unfortunately, his momentum was derailed when he referred to our town as Charlotte. He laughed as he accepted a torrent of mock boos, and tried to backpedal with some rambling theory about the immaterial nature of location and so forth that nobody really bought. It didn't have any lasting effect on the show, but it was a little irritating. Guitarist/keyboardist Steve Drozd kept things tight. It's easy to recognize that he's the band's purest musician, his role not unlike Jay Bennett's was in Wilco. Drozd deftly handled keyboard duties when he wasn't manipulating his Frankensteinian guitar with all sorts of gizmos built in. His voice--usually a smooth and stable falsetto--is also a key component to the band's onslaught, ably complementing Wayne's gravelly wail. Together with the power-drumming of Scurlock and the quiet finesse of longtime bassist Michael Ivins, the band does a fine job of recreating the controlled unravel of their studio sound.

Unfortunately, the setlist was defined more by what they didn't play than what they did. Sure, it was a treat to hear "She Don't Use Jelly" and the massive show-closer "Do You Realize??" But no "Yoshimi"? No "Fight Test"? No "Race for the Prize"? Not even the massive "Watching the Planets" from Embryonic? Some disappointing omissions, but this is not to say there weren't some tasty selections. Hearing a soaring version of Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse" was something special, as was "What Is the Light". The Embryonic cut "See the Leaves" saw Coyne smashing a mounted cymbal throughout, an activity that was mirrored on the screen by a towering nude chick (ostensibly the same one who squeezed the band out earlier.) Excited as I was at Wayne's introduction of "Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell" (one of my favorite Lips tracks), the version we got was abbreviated and understated, and it left me a bit nonplussed. All in all, it was a 15-song set.

I can't deny that I had a heap of fun and walked out of the venue sporting a silly grin. But a part of me was disappointed that the music was secondary to the fanfare, which was to be expected. But does there exist a disconnect in a live environment when the show is catered to the Freaks as opposed to the fans, both of whom showed up in equal measure? Wayne doesn't seem to care. To his credit, he's got a vision and he pulls out whatever stops necessary to see it through. Even a snobby music-first dude like me was inspired to get loose and bop balloons and scream Pink Floyd at the top of my lungs. Ultimately, it won't go down as one of my favorite concerts (especially in the shadow of the previous evening's TV On the Radio show.) But it was an indelible experience, impossible to forget. So to Wayne Coyne, all I can say is, "Mission accomplished, motherfucker."

*The night's highlight took place offstage, when an overzealous Freak dressed as an elf was pulled from his spot by an event staffer. The staffer was either a retired drill sergeant or 1980s WWF superstar, but whatever the case, it was evident he hated everything Wayne Coyne stood for. So when he spied this goofy nerd getting a bit out of control, the staffer cornered the guy and unleashed a public display of hellacious upbraiding that nearly brought the elf to tears as he begged for mercy. The staffer actually booted him from the show, but the elf somehow pled his way back in. So entertaining was it, that I'm now wondering if it was a part of the show. Talk about performance art!

Setlist and photos:

The Fear 
Sweet Leaf  (Black Sabbath cover)
Worm Mountain 
She Don't Use Jelly 
The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song 
Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell 
See the Leaves 
Laser Hands 
Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung 
What is the Light? 
The Observer 

Brain Damage (Pink Floyd cover)
Eclipse (Pink Floyd cover)

Do You Realize?? 

Other North Charleston Performing Arts Center Reviews:
Band of Horses w/Jenny and Johnny

Thursday, November 3, 2011

October 27, 2011: TV On the Radio

TV On the Radio
Music Farm (Charleston, SC)
October 27, 2011

It was Wednesday, and I was sitting at a bar with a buddy of mine going over some specifics for an upcoming camping trip. Eventually the conversation drifted into other things, namely music and concerts. I told him I had Flaming Lips tickets for two nights later. He casually mentioned that TV on the Radio was playing the next night (Thursday) and he was deliberating whether or not he should go. Not only did I not know about this, but I openly questioned him. After all, I'd be firmly aware if a can't-miss act like TV On the Radio was coming to town. Right?

Actually, he was right. TVOTR was playing the Music Farm, a fact that had somehow eluded me until less than 24 hours before showtime. How this happened remains a mystery, but luckily girlfriend was able to nab some tickets. Next thing I knew, we were standing amidst a sea of American Apparel and black rims at the Music Farm, waiting for the band to take the stage. Attending was a no-brainer, but this is not to say it didn't seem a bit obligatory for a few reasons. The Lips show the next night, plus I was already staring at a cluttered weekend slate, an already busy Thursday evening, a World Series game to watch. But I'd no doubt kick myself for skipping a renowned live act, one whose recorded cannon I've followed since 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain. It many ways, TVOTR is responsible for my musical wingspreading, as Cookie Mountain was one of the first relatively challenging albums I came to appreciate, especially among those that have virtually no stylistic inroads to Americana.

All things considered, we timed things perfectly. Showing up at the venue just shy of 10 PM, we saw roadies scrambling around the stage and by our calculations they were with the headliner. I usually aim to catch openers, but it wasn't in the cards tonight. After picking up a t-shirt, we were able to find a spot facing stage left, roughly fifteen yards from the stage. It's actually become sort of a defacto spot. I know I stood there or near there for Dr. Dog, Modest Mouse, and Andrew Bird.

It's always a rush to first see a band in the flesh after following them for some years. No exceptions here. The band's big three manned the near stage: fro'ed and bearded singer and guitarist Kyp Malone, dynamic lead man Tunde Adebimpe, and understated mastermind Dave Sitek. But multi-instrumentalist Jaleel Bunton's presence is felt via the bass, keyboard, and whatever else he might toss into the mix. I can't find the touring drummer's name, but big props to his bruising work behind the skins.

The band manned their instruments and launched into "Halfway Home", the opening salvo from 2008's Dear Science. It's a rumbling establishing act on record, but in a live environment it's an absolute firestorm. Adebimpe stresses the song's defining "ba-ba-bam-bam-bam" vocal refrains to the max while Sitek and Malone's guitars chug and drone. We heard a handful of Science tracks, including "Dancing Choose", "Golden Age", "Red Dress", and "DLZ". I can't actually find a setlist so I'm doing my best to recall what was played. I know we heard "Second Song" and "Repetition" from the band's 2011 release Nine Types of Light. Indie mega-hit "Wolf Like Me" brought down the house, as did the band's first notable single, "Staring At the Sun".

But more resonant than any one song was the untempered onslaught the band poured out over the crowd like molten lava. The guys never lacked energy. Their songs emanated like tractor beams from the broad stage, all draped in a haze of rich blue, purple, or orange light. Tunde is a stellar frontman, his expressive vocals complemented by arm flails and facial contortions. Kyp Malone isn't quite as animated, but he exudes a palpable kind of energy through his voice and presence alone. Incidentally, I was caught off guard by how often Malone sang lead vocals. Dave Sitek, behind his chunky black specs, oscillated steadily while manhandling his six-string, squeezing out fiery chords and leads as the band surged on. Some shows are meant for measured enjoyment, inviting each attendee to find his or her own groove and to calmly enjoy the performance within reason. This was not one of those shows. There was a roiling moshpit from the word go. It also marks the first time I've seen a crowdsurfer and stagediver make an appearance at the Farm. There was also an audience-wide rash of hat throwing that held steady throughout most of the show. It was odd, but somehow appropriate.

Mercifully (and I only say this because of how exhausted I was and my full slate in the upcoming days) the show let out by 11:30. But, of course, the best World Series game in years just had to be taking place at that time, so it was over to the bar to watch the final innings. I believe it was past one by the time my head finally hit a pillow. Indeed, it was a long, long night, but there wasn't a lingering shred of regret resulting from it. Quite the contrary, considering the show wasn't even a blip on my radar two days prior. Indeed, lost sleep can be found later, unlike lasting and explosive experiences like this.

Again, no setlist to be found, but some crappy iPhone photography for you:

Other Music Farm Reviews:
Dr. Dog
The Hold Steady
Modest Mouse
Andrew Bird

More musical lookalikes...

Time for another edition of musical lookalikes. And this isn't apropos of nothing, either. I've got a review upcoming of my recent TV on the Radio experience. It's been a long-harbored observation of mine that two gentlemen--each of whom I could only refer to as "the guy from (x)"--were a lock for this feature. And finally I have my excuse.

Folks, I give you character actor Eddie Steeples--most notably from My Name Is Earl--and TVOTR jack-of-many-trades Jaleel Bunton.

"Oh, so they look alike because they're both black guys with dread-fros? Do you only notice vague superficialities, you asshat?" Look, this feature is not based on anything more than loose criteria consisting of such vague characterizations. It's obvious that the two share a silhouette at first glance, and comparing them isn't some biological commentary on race or culture.

But yes.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Fall 2011: The Goods

When I roll out the Midway Through the Year Awards, I'm usually so giddy about the first half that I assume none of the second-half releases could possibly stack up. Last year, this actually was the case, with only two post-June releases falling in my year end top 10. But generally speaking, the only months that truly suffer in the final tally are December and, to a lesser extent, November due to the natural abbreviated period of exposure prior to the year's end. But there's usually no dearth of fall releases that contend for "Best Of" lists.

This year's fall class is particularly strong, and it's the veterans of my collection who are defining it. It's easy to overlook some of the mainstays in favor of the young heatseekers–again I'll refer you to last year's list, where four of the top five albums represented my first exposure to that artist.* But this year, some of the heavy hitters are looking to do just that. Let's have a look at some of the second-half LPs that are squarely on the radar:

Tom Waits - Bad As Me

I'll make no apologies for my Waitsmania, which is why he's been thoroughly covered on HSW throughout the years. But tomorrow marks a watershed date: it'll be the first new Waits album to drop since I dove into his fractured, shadowy world. It's called Bad As Me and it is absolutely stunning. I hope to write a full review, but for now I'll direct you to your nearest source of new music and tell you to scoop it up. Remember: This ain't for the weak of heart, but it oozes passion and soul. I even hear a few callbacks to 70s Waits in songs like "Kiss Me" and "Last Leaf". 

Feist - Metals

The lovely Ms. Feist has finally released the follow-up to her breakthrough The Reminder. While you won't hear a "1234" on this one, I find it to be a more ably and confidently constructed album on the whole. The opener, "The Bad In Each Other", is one of the best tracks I've heard this year. I have yet to fully immerse myself in this one, but my first few listens have already made me a believer.

Wilco - The Whole Love

Have yet to cool on this one–in fact, I find myself warming to some of the tracks I wasn't so keen on at first blush. Have a look at my review for some more thorough insight.

Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire

As previously published, it didn't blow me away, but I see it as a marked improvement on the last few and a step in the right direction. Good enough, anyway, to earn a stray spin here and there, and that's far more than I can say for Cardinology.

Megafaun - s/t

Not so much a time-tested favorite as the previous four, but their new album warrants as much praise if not more than any of them. You know when an album dovetails with everything you love about music? This is one of those albums. Of course, the Megafauners aren't the only vestige of DeYarmond Edison to release a stellar self-titled album in 2011. Former bandmate Justin Vernon's sophomore success is well documented. Whose will land higher on our year-end list? Stay tuned...

Real Estate - Days

Now I'm completely straying from the theme here, as this is not only a young band, but Days is also my first exposure to Real Estate. But at any rate, it's an attractive batch of tunes. Days consists mostly of verbed-out indie rock that isn't too meaty but is heavy enough on hooks to coax you back every couple of days. So basically, it's this fall's version of the Smith Westerns.


Still upcoming is Cass McComb's second LP of 2011 Humor Risk, which looks to be a bit more of a spirited affair than the grueling WITS END. Also, the Black Keys' El Camino drops December 6, so they'll have to impress quickly to climb the ranks. And who knows what other unexpected gems might find their way into rotation. But even if no others make a dent, fall '11 will still be remembered as quite a stretch for fresh tunes.

*Arcade Fire, obviously, was not new to me.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Adams' Ashes & Fire marks a return to returning to form

Ed note: Hey, a post! Huzzah!

Ryan Adams spent the better half of the last ten years in a sort of lull. It began after his triumphal 2005, when he released his famous triad of LPs. These were quality efforts–I'd wager the average Adams fan stands behind at least one of them as a classic. After eschewing a release in 2006, Adams and his Cardinals gave us Easy Tiger the following year, which was met with relative indifference by much of his longtime fanbase (fun fact: a review of ET was one of the earliest posts on this blog. I gave it the benefit of the doubt back then, but it hasn't aged well.) Those feelings of indifference cauterized into dismay and frustration when Cardinology dropped in 2008. Adams warbled his way through a slate of templated light-rock, leaving only the most feverish apologists in his corner. The rest of us wondered what happened to the dynamo who spent most of the late 90s and early 2000s pumping out a staggering cannon of magnetic, thoughtful songs with seemingly little effort.

As every review is quick to point out, Adams' past few years have seen him release a metal album and a mildly satisfying unreleased Cardinals double-LP, marry Mandy Moore, and stay relatively quiet on the touring front. He's been battling an inner ear disease, at times firing off vague indications that his music career was finished. But the long-time fans among us know better. Adams has a history of teasing his fanbase with these sorts of nuggets, and the guy is just too addicted to his craft. By the way, I don't question his ailment. The disease seems pretty legitimate. But I get the feeling that only his ultimate expiration will suture off his creative output.

So anyway, the RA machine reanimated this year, and he released his first true solo album since 29, the final entry of the 2005 trilogy. Ashes & Fire, like most Ryan Adams releases, garnered a fair amount of buzz. The phrase "return to form" cropped up in about every preview.

The album opens with "Dirty Rain", a folksy intersection of Van Morrison and Neil Young. The reined in the vocal style is a relief, as Adams has seemingly abandoned the pronounced strain we heard on the past two Cardinals releases. We hear sweet Hammond runs gushing through a swirling Leslie during the chorus and outro, a theme reprised throughout the record. "Dirty Rain" isn't a great Ryan Adams song, but it's very good and enough to thaw an Adams ex-pat's preconceptions. Maybe there was something to all this "return to form" chatter...

Things only get better with the spirited title-track waltz, "Ashes and Fire". It'd make Gram Parsons smile, and seems to negate Adams' blogpost from several years back wherein he stated his hatred of country music. I didn't buy it then, but it's still nice to hear him embracing that musical element to which he owes much of his current level of success. Unfortunately, the ensuing "Come Home" loses me. The lyrics are especially brutal–any time some variation of the dreaded "how I feel"/"it seems real" rhyme rears its ugly head, I can't help but bristle. The song goes for subtlety of "How Do You Keep Love Alive" but the result is a neutered ballad. Disinterest pervades the instrumentation.

By contrast, "Rocks" achieves something in its restraint, thanks in large part to a lovely, brooding string section. "Do I Wait" is most noticeable for its a spacey tail-end, reminiscent of a swirling latter-era Elliott Smith psych-outro. I only wish it lingered on for a minute more.

"Chains of Love" is a short, pulsing song with a cathartic chorus and bridge. It offers little emotional punch, but it's a serviceable foil to its predecessor. An early favorite of many, "Invisible Riverside" is structured with the sort of major chord circuitry that defines the likes of "Magnolia Mountain". Unfortunately, it swaps out that song's gothic tinges and attitude for an edgeless Easy Tiger lilt.

Pristine ballad "Save Me" will retrigger the Neil Young comparisons, especially when Adams leans on those quivering high notes that for which Young has a penchant. It's a pretty song in the right moment. It's followed by "Kindness", a slow-burning slab of easy listening with a warm arrangement–there's that Hammond organ again. While it features a lyrical set that doesn't not sound like a Sesame Street song, they're reasonably affecting in the form they take.

The lead single, "Lucky Now", feels like a dozen other Adams songs. But its the kind of song he does so well, so we'll allow for it. The lyrics seem to refer to his new peace as a husband and sober guy. It's a little jarring for those of us who identify with his earlier persona to hear the guy sing, "Am I really who I was?" The answer is no, as far as we can tell, and based on his reputation for excess and being temperamental, it's probably a good thing.

Another ballad arrives in "I Love You But I Don't Know What To Say," and that at least partially describes how feel about the song. I'm going to assume this one's aimed right at Mandy, which may explain why it doesn't really do much for me. The moonlit "Star Sign" would have slotted nicely into 29. It's the most divisive album of the 2005 trio, but I've always liked it for because of its niche and identity. Ergo, "Star Sign" is a satisfying last act of Ashes & Fire.

The fan reaction has been mixed. Of course the radicals love it. But I've even noticed some old school fans seeing the light on this one. Me? I'm not quite ready to call it an an unassailable success, but it's certainly a step in the right direction for one of the more impressive singer-songwriters of this era.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Just a programming note...

For the handful of folks who come here regularly, I just wanted to (again) address the sad state of this place lately. Truth is, I just can't maintain the pace anymore. It'll probably be about as steady as its been from here on out, with the exception being December for the year end festivities and live reviews. As always, I reserve the right to surge back with a vengeance. But I consider it unlikely at this point, based on all I have going on right now. Recurring features will just have to fall by the wayside, sad to say. These real-life obligations are good things, mind you. For instance, I'm actually recording my own album now, a long-time goal I finally decided to invest in.  

Anyway, it's stupid that I'm even writing this, because really, it's just a crummy little blog I started on a lark. But I'm kinda proud of where it's come, and I hate for it to fall into dereliction like so many seem to. Thanks for everyone's support throughout our five years, and I'll continue to do the best I can to maintain some kind of vivacity around here.

In the interest of incorporating a bit of music: two great recent albums I'd recommend are Feist's Metals and Megafaun's self-titled release. Actually, Metals may not be released quite yet. But it's streaming on her site, so check that one out. Her incredible voice makes the throngs of ubiquitous pixie-throated indie chicks look so silly by comparison.

Oh, and by the way, this is the 100th post of the year. Something bittersweet about that...

Thanks dudes,

Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: Wilco Refocuses On "The Whole Love"

Never have I been so anxious for an album to end.

A curious reaction to my first taste of the new LP by this blog's most ballyhooed band. But that was exactly how I felt earlier this week: checking my iPod's screen, urging each track to slide past. Listening wasn't a chore or anything--quite the opposite. It's not that the album was too long, either. After all, surely Tweedy and crew read the Musical Surgery piece I wrote on them last year and steered clear of such dangerous waters.

I desired to hear the final strains of The Whole Love because it's a damned good album. I simply didn't want it to run off the rails, and the less opportunities available to do that, the better. Unfortunately, Wilco's past two efforts have trained me to expect that at least some measure of Teva-clad dad rock might creep into the mix. And while this new one certainly flirted with that, the album ultimately thrived without any references to lawn-mowing.

I think part of my anxiety was borne out of the fact that the album's first five tracks are tremendous. The opener, "Art of Almost", might lead one to believe that The Whole Love would be a hyper-progressive, dark affair. And while it is both of those things at times, that's certainly no way to describe it on the whole. But at any rate, it's a fantastic song, as is second track "I Might", the fuzz-rock lead single we'd heard a while back.

"Sunloathe" is a slow-burner, featuring a Flaming Lips studio wash and the vaguely emo-ish titular lyric, "I loathe the sun."  It's followed by "Dawned On Me", which was among the first to spring up at live shows. What might have been a schmaltzy feelgood pop rock track were it done by 2009's Wilco instead achieves a certain Bennett-era richness.

"Black Moon" is next, and it's one of the album's strongest tracks. Low, brooding ambient-folk is something Wilco does better than just about anyone. It's not abstract like, say, "Radio Cure", but it's indicative of the unique approach to gloomy folk for which the band's become famous.

The next three tracks are where things get a bit unstable. From an arrangement standpoint, "Born Alone" falls somewhere between the unadorned feel of Sky Blue Sky and the upbeat charm of Summerteeth. Unfortunately, the post-chorus guitar line, which mimics the vocal melody, is highly abrasive and comes off as a tad lazy. I would have expected a complementary arrangement instead of a grating reprise of the melody we've already heard ad nauseam.

"Open Mind" is a pretty, if unimaginative, Nashville-tinged waltz with C+ lyrics but it's a serviceable track from a flow perspective. The album's weakest moment follows in "Capitol City". "Here, a Randy Newman song. Enjoy!" Indeed, it fits the bill for Newman-approved songcraft: bouncy shuffle, recitation of big city minutia, blues-seventh chords en masse. It's "Walken" without the heart. It picks up a bit of steam at the end, but on the whole, it comes perilously close to derailing the album.

Things get back on track with the jaunty "Standing O", a caffeinated romp that has me forgiving them for "Capitol City" by minute two. Tweedy's vocal turn is fascinating on this one, a bit more manic and wiggly than usual but it suits him and the song well.

"Rising Red Lung" is another acoustic brooder, a latter-era "Dash 7" with a soothing guitar-centric arrangement that provides a nice late-album rest. The ensuing title track is snappy and lovable, no great creative achievement, but do they all need to be? It's charming in the way some of the more lighthearted Mermaid Avenue material is; close your eyes and you'll see the cartoon blue jays swirling around as the band plays on. Also, it's begging to score the final scene of a romantic comedy some day. Look for it in a theater near you.

Perhaps the album's most classically Wilco track, "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" blooms untraceably across a dozen minutes. Jeff Tweedy reminds us why his voice is such an effective vehicle for pained lyrics: "Outside I look lived in," he admits over softly fingerpick acoustic and a faint but steady rimshot. The song--its title referencing the prominent author who will now see a spike in sales among aging hipsters--may be the album's finest moment, and because of that, I'm left with a feeling of giddy satisfaction.

Who knows how the critics will react, but as far as this blog is concerned: well done, Wilco. While I was prepared to accept the diminishing returns in the studio, I hadn't written off the band as a creative force, and that faith was rewarded. I don't know that this album will ultimately fall in with the truly elite Wilco efforts (the stretch spanning Being There to A Ghost Is Born), but I can already sense it will be a legitimately respected member of the discography.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Low Anthem is quitting...or taking a break...or something...

I don't know why I insist on using my own shitty iPhone concert photos, but here were are.

As obtuse announcements go, this one rates up there with lowercase Radiohead website statements and rambling Ryan Adams Facebook posts. Indeed, the Low Anthem sent out a somewhat ominous epistle to its mailing list that starts off as a farewell letter but then takes a turn for the optimistic.

Indeed, the e-mail began the way most "Dear Fan," letters do:
"It was nearly 3 years ago when we first self-released Oh My God, Charlie Darwin."
After that, they wax reflective for a while--taking a shot at "watery bullshit known as indie music" and championing their purist approach--but never quite drop the bomb. They seem to suggest that their upcoming tour (which brashly ignores Charleston) will mark the final pages of this "chapter." Chapter of what, you ask? I don't know. Part of me thinks they're just sick of promoting their 2011 LP Smart Flesh, or maybe they're recognizing the implausibility of playing their style of music in front of larger audiences. Anyway, they do provide some concrete optimism:
"It's not the end."
"There is no end."
Aw, damnit. So it's just one of those cryptic teaser things that alludes to the power of the recorded sound and communal ownership of music? To be fair, they do make light of the dozens of unrecorded songs they've written and some other ambitions, but invite the conclusion that the end of their tour will mark a period of extended dormancy. Maybe Ben Knox Miller will have time to work on that screamo side project he's been  considering [citation needed].

Regardless, they've left us with an admirable canon (including bonafide new classic in Charlie Darwin) and me personally with a memorable concert experience and a sweet T-shirt. So best of luck to TLA in their endeavors, and we'll look forward to catching up with you down the road!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

August 26, 2011: Gillian Welch

Step into my musical Wayback machine, and let's set the dial to 2004. A scrawny college sophomore and burgeoning music nut, I was fast broadening my horizons but still something of a neophyte. My obsession with Ryan Adams carried over from freshman year, although at this point I was more interested in Whiskeytown and his vast unreleased canon than, say, Gold. I was starting to take an interest in Wilco--one of my first orders of business back at school was downloading the much-ballyhooed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in its entirety. By the end of sophomore year, I'd blown through the Wilco catalog much in the way I'd done with Ryan Adams the year before. This was also the year I'd discover Elliott Smith, Iron and Wine, the Shins, and a handful of other alt/indie/whatever required listening.

Amidst the influx, I remember vividly the first time I heard Gillian Welch's "Revelator": preparing to leave for class, looking for reasons to put off the commute. A few successive listens of Gillian's opus did the trick. I was quick to recognize it as one of the best songs I'd ever heard (no hyperbole here) and developed the urge to see Gil and Dave perform it live. Unfortunately, a few opportunities slipped through my fingers. That, paired with the tandem's lengthy period of studio dormancy, meant a seven-year holding pattern, during which I'd have to busy myself with ad nauseam consumption of their back catalog.  But finally, with the new album came an immense tour, and with it a stop in Charleston.

The Charleston Music Hall is a criminally underutilized venue, a seated theater situated on John Street, half a block from the bustle of midtown King. It's a gorgeous theater that seats just shy of a thousand, and there isn't a poor vantage point in the place. My past experiences at the Hall? A night of jazz with Wynton Marsalis and his big band, and then ticket scanning duties a Bryan Adams show. So I knew the venue, although neither experience was in my wheelhouse the way Gillian's was sure to be.

I bragged a few months ago about our stealthily obtained front row tickets. My hubris was not rewarded, as it turns out the venue added a row of chairs ahead of the front row, relegating us to the SECOND row. What an outrage! #1stworldproblems Still, we had a fantastic vantage point, about a dozen seats stage right. The stage set-up was refreshingly minimalistic. Each performer's spot was marked with a mic for vocals and another aimed at the instrument. Situated in the background was a refueling station of sorts: a small table flanked by instrument stands. On the table were two glasses of water and a brown jewelry box filled with picks and harmonicas. All that was left was for Gil and Dave to take the stage.

The lights fell, and out strolled the couple, each toting a guitar and Gillian with a banjo as well. No roadies, no pretense. They looked like two kids at a recital, fighting back smiles while they tuned amidst the applause. Gillian is a tiny woman, all elbows and angles. It's like she's made out of spindles with a pale white linen sewn over. She wore a sundress and cowboy boots, her red hair hanging in strings about her shoulders. Dave looked dapper in a grey (or maybe olive) suit, black boots and a massive Stetson. They had the look of a traveling mountain-folk duo, alright, but did they have the chops?

That, of course, is a rhetorical question. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are stunning purveyors of their niche, a sort of refined old-time folk with a lyrical focus. Their harmonies unify so seamlessly that it's almost demoralizing to those of us who aren't so skilled, but I suppose that's the byproduct of nearly 20 years of collaboration. I noticed that in lieu of counting off to start a song, Gil would hum a bar of the vocal melody off-mic before she and Dave set in. It was a beautiful touch, but its purpose was practical, which made it even more affecting. It's hard not to dub the stunning performance of "Revelator" song of the night. As with most of the set, it wasn't far removed from the album version, but why should it be? Most of their stuff is recorded live-in-the-studio as it is. An extended solo was the only distinction from its studio form, but the audience welcomed the hefty dose of Rawlings' expressive guitar work. Rawlings played his trademark 1930s Epiphone archtop, flatpicking his way through the thousands of springy notes that made up his licks.

Other standouts were Harrow and the Harvest tracks "That's the Way It Will Be", "Tennessee", set-opener "Scarlet Town", and "Six White Horses". The latter featured Dave on banjo and harmonica, and Gil providing hambone percussion and midsong clogging. It was charming, believe it or not. They introduced "Elvis Presley Blues" by deeming it their holiday song, "if you consider Elvis' death day a holiday." The only miss of the night was David Rawlings' turn performing "Sweet Tooth", a track from 2009's A Friend of a Friend. The song is fine, but it wore on for ages and by the fifth verse about candy, I found myself wondering about the fantasy football draft I was missing. The night's finest moment, indisputably, was the second encore. The duo stepped to the front of the stage, off-mic, and announced that they'd like to leave us with the first song they'd ever played together. They set into a delicate version of "Long Black Veil" that managed to silence the surprisingly gabby audience.

To echo the analysis of a friend with whom I attended, it was exactly what I expected it to be. A masterful performance by two musicians who have a long-fermented compatibility and elite songwriting chops. I can't imagine a soul left that sold-out Music Hall underwhelmed. As we walked out into the night in search of a post-show pint, I still felt Gil's silken coos and Dave's nimble guitar lines dancing in my ears. Seven years after I first heard "Revelator" in that tiny apartment bedroom in Columbia, I can happily confirm that it was well worth the wait.

Setlist, as photographed by Gil and Dave's twitter feed. Good luck deciphering their shorthand. Following that, some crappy pictures. Unfortunately, the venue forbade photography, so I had to be sneaky and it was low-lit.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rejoice! New Tom Waits album out this October

Over the past week, the sleeping giant Thomas Alan Waits had shown signs of stirring. Indeed, 24 Bit is now reporting that Bad As Me, Waits' 18th LP proper (that excludes live albums and collections), will drop on October 25. It's his first album since 2004's Real Gone, which is striking in that it parallels Gillian Welch, who earlier this year released her first album since '04.

We're awaiting some sort of address from the man himself, which should be up on his website sometime today. The last time he made such an address, it was to announce the Glitter and Doom tour, which afforded me the opportunity to take in Tom's magical Atlanta set. Is another tour forthcoming? Doubtful, would be my guess. In the world of Waits, tours and album releases are often mutually exclusive endeavors. But you never know, right? I'm particularly excited for this release since it represents the first new Waits LP since I've been a fan. I wasn't on board with Mr. Waits until 2005 or so.

Of note: the album stands to factor into into our recently-analyzed Singer-Songwriter Album of the Year discussion. The title-track single is available on iTunes--I've yet to hear it but I look to rectify that situation sooner than later. Anyway, if you want to prepare yourself in advance of the new record, why not check out last year's Tom Waits Appreciation feature?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Weekly Whathaveyou - Friday, August 19

Various and Sundry Goings On About Music:
  • I just wanted to briefly touch on the state of the ol' blog here. I love writing here, and I'm frankly flabbergasted that so many folks have followed this thing, even if only a portion actually visit and read regularly. As I always say, this is more of an open journal than anything, but the feedback I get is motivating. That's why I built features like 11 Best, IMM and the one you're currently reading. It used to be relatively easy to keep up with, but as life gathers moss, I'm running out of opportunities to balance output here with everything else. Last month was a particularly busy stretch, which is why I only managed 6 measly posts. I'm not on track for much better this month. Point is, I may not be able to sustain as much output as I'd like (until some blog network decides to pay me. Not banking on this...) But anyway, expect ebbs and flows is what I'm saying. The good news is, historically, these sorts of "sorry I don't post enough!" announcements are followed by productive stretches. I don't know why this happens, but it's been something of a trend. Anyway, enough with this meaningless blather. On to music stuff!
  • The new record by Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks is streaming on Never ventured into Malkmus' post-Pavement material, but the fact that Beck produced it was all the incentive I needed. I've only listened to it once so far, but I was very impressed on first blush. Look for that one to experience large gains in the year's home stretch.
  • A few concerts dot my upcoming calendar: Gillian Welch next weekend, The Felice Brothers and The Flaming Lips in October. Still want to get the Pixies show in November, but I missed the on-sale time and I don't want to pay $60 for nosebleeds. Anyone looking to unload a front row seat? 
  • Wilco released a teaser video for another song from the upcoming album. Good news: it's kinda weird! Anticipation for new album rising...
  • Tom Waits is announcing something big on Tuesday. He's also releasing a single that day. New album? Please please please please please please please (etc.)
  • This list of 30 Greatest Musical Insults is hilarious. My personal favorite is Robert Smith saying he'll eat meat if Morrissey tells him not to, because "That's how much I hate Morrissey." Indeed.

Recent Listening:
  • Titus Andronicus - The Monitor
  • Andrew Bird - They Mysterious Production of Eggs
  • Broken Social Scene - Your Forgot It In People
  • Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing
  • Howlin' Wolf - Live Bootleg from 1964
  • Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Mirror Traffic
Upcoming Releases of Import:
  • Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Mirror Traffic (August 23)
  • Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing (September 13)
  • Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost (September 13)
  • Wilco - The Whole Love (September 27)
  • Feist - Metals (October 4)
  • Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire (October 11)
  • Cass McCombs - Humor Risk (November 8)
My Upcoming Concert Schedule:
  • Gillian Welch (Charleston, August 28)
  • Felice Brothers (Charleston, October 7)
  • Flaming Lips (Charleston, October 28)

A Tube For You:
In July, I listed my 50 favorite tracks from the year's first half. Bon Iver's "Holocene" made it all the way to #10 on the list, and by now is probably higher. Just yesterday, the band released a beautiful music video for the track. It features a young boy frolicking in the Icelandic countryside. It'll make your surroundings seem comparably dingy. Enjoy:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Singer-Songwriter Album of the Year Discussion

The best part about writing a blog is that it (falsely) entitles me to dole out any number of gold stars at year's end, something I've done in an increasingly gaudy fashion over the years. Last year's superlative award series was an intentionally over-the-top example of this practice. But dating back to--gee, as long as this blog has been around--there has been one tacitly acknowledged award that holds a special place in my heart. That's the "Singer-Songwriter Album of the Year".

The first question is this: what makes an album "singer-songwriter" in the first place? The answer: uh, you know. Guy or girl playing songs they wrote on a guitar, or a piano I guess. Limited accompaniment. Generally acoustic. And of course a hearty dash of je ne sais pas! These guidelines, of course, are arbitrary and vague. Where does one draw the line? By these measures, Elliott Smith stepped out of consideration around the time of Figure 8. But he was still a singer-songwriter, wasn't he?

Here's the simple answer: within the walls of this blog, an album is singer-songwriter if I say it is. Moving on!

I've never had trouble singling a singer-songwriter album out as the best of its class. Back in 2007, it was rookie Fionn Regan and his lovely LP End of History. I even wrote a review of it! (Once upon a time, I actually planned on writing reviews steadily for this site. Naive!) The next year, Sun Kil Moon edged out Conor Oberst for the top spot. Note that neither of these albums embody the guidelines I previously suggested. Please follow this link to register complaints.

In 2009, we saw the unprecedented achievement of the best singer-songwriter album also topping the general best of the year list. That was Cass McCombs' Catacombs, a beautifully understated effort that lived in my car stereo most of the summer. Last year, full bands offered me far more material of interest, but The Tallest Man On Earth's The Wild Hunt was still among the year's best.

We're over halfway through 2011, and a few solid contenders have emerged with more still on the horizon. So far, Gillian Welch is the gal to beat. The Harrow and the Harvest was our second favorite album mid-year. Kurt Vile's Smoke Ring For My Halo wasn't far behind. Those albums sandwiched Iron and Wine on the list, but I can't consider the present-day iteration of Sam's project "singer-songwriter." Not since before The Shepherd's Dog has Iron and Wine resembled a singer-songwriter act, and I'm sure you'd agree. The same goes for Bon Iver's new album. The band around Justin Vernon has validated its presence. You could say the same for Toro y Moi, although it'd be hard to consider an electronic bedroom producer a singer-songwriter in the first place.

Richard Buckner's new album, Our Blood, dropped recently. It's beautiful, brooding and dark, featuring Buckner's trademark rich baritone over strikingly simple progressions. Look for it to factor in come year's end. I mentioned Fionn Regan earlier: his third album just dropped (I actually never heard his sophomore effort.) Only one listen in, but I like what I heard. His vocals remind me of 29-era Ryan Adams, which I would consider an asset.

Speaking of Adams, the wait is over: his first solo album since 29 drops in October. It's called Ashes and Fire, and early chatter is that it's something of a return to form for a guy who, frankly, hasn't released much worthy material in half a decade. Another upcoming album was announced just today: Cass McCombs will release his second LP of the year in November, Humor Risk. I could never quite get over the hump with Wit's End, so Cass will have a second chance in 2011 to build on the success of Catacombs.

The competition is stiff this year, and that's a welcomed situation. At any given time, a million singer-songwriters shoving their latest heartbreak ballad down your throat. Hell, I'm one of them. It's easy (and often warrantable) to write these guys and girls off as more of the same. But there are those that do it a tick (or a league) better than all the rest, and they're the ones who deserve a listen.

In other pressing singer-songwriter news, Gavin DeGraw got his ass kicked.