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 NPR.org. 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.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

11 (and then some) Best Brass

First, my apologies for missing 11 Best last month. It was a casualty of a very busy stretch for me, and unfortunately in the world of unpaid and deadlineless writing, these things happen. What's worse? This edition of 11 Best will be one of my patented half-assed efforts, where I condense everything into one post.

Anyway, it's sort of ironic that our subject this month is brass, because I arrived at it via the assessment that I generally don't like brass gussying up my music. But if there's one thing I've learned from four years in a creative field, it's that the least logical path is often the most interesting. To wit: surely there are some songs with brass arrangements that I'm capable of enjoying. Going through my iPod, I was actually surprised by the number of contenders for this list. I disqualified acts like Dave Matthews and Bruce Springsteen who rely heavily on a brass presence, by the way. But even without those, I had a heap of material to work with.

And you know what? Since I skipped last month, we're going to up the ante. Here are 17 songs for ya ass. Like June, these are in no particular order:
  • Neil Young - "After the Gold Rush": A regal trumpet solo toots the vocal melody on one of Young's most famous songs.
  • Silver Jews - "Random Rules": I love the bed of lounge brass that lifts behind the chorus of this classic album opener.
  • Radiohead - "How to Disappear Completely": A lone trumpet dances in the shadowy middle distance of Radiohead's ghostly ode to getting the hell outta dodge.
  • Wilco - "Monday" - I remember reading that Jeff Tweedy was incensed when the Stonesy horns were stripped from the radio edit.
  • Bob Dylan - "Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine)": This is actually a serviceable remix of the original, which is unavailable on youtube apparently.
  • Tom Waits - "Ruby's Arms": Takes the cake for the saddest horn section on the list. Short instrumental horn introduction sets the stage for this all-time bawler.
  • Hold Steady - "Chillout Tent": Every great album has that one polarizing track. This one--featuring choral exchanges by the song's subjects--often proves to be the one on Boys and Girls in America. But I love the bed of trumpet hits that complement the second chorus. They provide an open-air feel that conjures the mid-day sprawl of a rock festival.
  • The National - "Fake Empire": As the coda of this establishing act unfurls, the frantic and overlapping brass section embodies the song's big city setting.
  • Broken Social Scene - "Art House Director": The rich, shimmering swaths of Price Is Right style horn blasts are a large part of why this was my favorite track from Forgiveness Rock Record.
  • Spoon - The Underdog": Rarely a band to reach across stylistic boundaries, they introduced some choppy horn runs to round out what is probably their most digestible track to date.  
  • Bright Eyes - "Landlocked Blues": Maybe a little cliched, but I still get goosebumps every now and then hearing the charged "Taps" blast that unfurls after Conor screeches "'Cause they're comin' for ya!"
  • TV On the Radio - "Crying" - The pool is deep with TVOTR, but I'll place "Crying" slightly ahead of "I Was a Lover".
  • Whiskeytown - "The Ballad of Carol Lynn": The soft horn section here is just the right amount of sweetener for this sleepy-eyed number.
  • The Low Anthem - "Boeing 737":  The newest entry on the list, I love the soaring brass draws that score the violent rush of an airliner passing just overhead.
  • Elliott Smith - "A Question Mark": A baritone sax puffs along beneath the chugging XO tune.  
  • My Morning Jacket - "Dancefloors": It was a treat seeing this one played with a full jazz band in tow, fleshing out the horn-laden outro jam.
  • Beck - "Tropicalia": Fact: it is impossible not to shimmy in some form or fashion when hearing "Tropicalia".
Wild card, you say? Look, I just rolled out 17 of the horniest songs in my collection and you still want a wild card? I'm hardly posting these days as it is--how are you going to bug me for more content? Nah just kidding, I've got a treat for the six of you reading this: how about I throw my own shit under the microscope for once. Check out my self-produced (re: shoddy) track "Thunders of the Morning". Listen close during the chorus and the outro jam, and you'll hear some midi-horns.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Craig Finn to make solo album

Craig Finn doing his best hummingbird impression.

File this under intriguing: hyper Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn has announced a solo project (maybe eponymous, maybe no) that should drop sometime in early '12. Now, this doesn't mean THS is on the outs; far from it, as they're set to write and record a follow-up to Heaven Is Whenever in the next few months.

In an interview with Pitchfork, Finn suggests the album's sound will lean towards Americana, and he cites Townes Van Zandt as a recent influence. All sounds good to me. I just hope Craig doesn't assume a faux-country drawl, 'cause I can't imagine that working too well especially when talking about Catholicism and/or the Twins.

Of course, Pitchfork also takes the opportunity to assholishly ask Craig why Heaven wasn't better received. Craig gives an excellent response:
I don't know. Possibly because we just kept coming out with records, and it was just another Hold Steady record, you know? The good news is that people were still coming out to the shows-- in the music industry these days, that's what matters. But I think part of it is that we're not a new band anymore. There is a real thirst for new things; to not be a huge band, but also not a new band, is different territory. But if you keep putting out albums, there's always another one. It doesn't have to be your masterpiece if you don't wait six years between records.
Translation: "Because publications like Pitchfork try to measure us based on their own parameters, whereas we're just releasing albums because we, you know, write them. But hey, fans like it, so just because your douchebag asses didn't 'receive' the album warmly doesn't mean our fans didn't. Did I mention you're a douchebag?"

But of course Craig was nice and tempered in his response. And, to be fair, I don't think Heaven Is Whenever was quite up to par with their past releases. Still, I don't think Craig should have to answer to Pitchfork here.

But anyway. Solo album! Looking forward to hearing this one down the line.

Musical Chronicles of Workplace Drudgery

Based on the utterly pathetic amount of posting I've done here lately, you'd be right to assume that I've been busy. Considering slow work days and clean slate evenings are my two prime-times for blogging, the lack of both has put the squeeze on my ability to produce. So I apologize for the negligence. Work doesn't promise to be any leaner, but softball seasons just ended, so hopefully I'll get some more content out.

By day, I'm a graphic designer at a publishing company. We publish self-help and business titles, so as you might imagine, it can get pretty dry. For instance, over the past two weeks I've trudged my way through the interior layouts of two books; one on the legalities of financial firms (or was it finance for law firms?) and another on financial planning geared towards upper middle-class Midwesterners. If you fell asleep reading that sentence, I understand.

The good news is the text-heavy nature of the manuscripts made the work relatively mindless. (Set style; apply style; repeat.) This yields some of my best critical listening time. I can focus on the music for long, uninterrupted stretches while still being productive. And I gotta say, the ol' iPod was on fire, rolling out the big guns as if to offset the cream-of-wheat content with which I'd been saddled. Mind you, I only use the album shuffle because, as always, I am an insufferable purist when it comes to start-to-finish album experiences.

As the projects wore on, the juxtaposition of this music and these projects became almost parodical. It was as if these songs were inspiring a creative outpour that metastasized into serif textflows and jagged line graphs depicting the ten-year performance of various hedge funds. So I'd like to provide some selections from the soundtrack of my past weeks' groundwork, and discuss the wacky relationship each may have had with the task at hand.

Spoon: Gimme Fiction

Fitting, considering I'd far prefer to lay out fiction titles. There are two reasons for this: less work, more interesting. Kinda like Spoon, actually. Their sounds aren't overcomplex (no subtitles, charts, bullet lists, etc.) and like the best writing, the music seems effortless.

M. Ward: Transfiguration of Vincent

I first listened to this dim-lit, pensive album sitting in a near-empty Seattle airport, waiting to board a delayed redeye to O'hare. I don't really have any reason to tell you that, except that it's a shred more interesting than saying, "Vincent came on while I was italicizing a sentence about uniform commercial code.

Bright Eyes: Fevers and Mirrors

Had to skip. Not sure my mind could compute the sensory amalgamation of Conor's angry-screeched downer anthems while adjusting the margins on a correlation matrix graph. Note: I'm not sure if it was a correlation matrix graph, or if that exists. I just remember those words on a graph, and I'd really rather not look at it again.

Radiohead: Hail to the Thief

My go-to for long late-night drives, it suited the situation well since, like night driving, I found myself fighting off the overwhelming urge to faceplant at any given moment. Thankfully, in both situations, coffee is there to help.

Beirut: The Rip Tide

I gave the new one from Beirut a test drive whilst building an index. Despite Zach Condon's vocal similarity to that jackwad Morrissey, I liked what I heard.

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals: III/IV

This one saw the light of day late last year, a collection of relics from the Cardinals era. To me, it's a mishmash of decent B-sides and throwaways, but I took to it a bit more than I had previously. Perhaps it didn't seem so bad compared to thorough analyses of alternate investment strategies.

Titus Andronicus: The Monitor/Pixies: Surfer Rosa

Throwing these two rollicking affairs together, since they soundtracked my past week's drives to and from work. If blistering guitar runs and angry vocals don't prepare you mentally for this sort of excitement, then you're in the wrong line of work.

Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger

The country-western masterpiece was perfect for the final wind-down. Willie Nelson's dulcet coos swirled as I finalized the preliminary layout of the latter (and dryer) book, easing my week to a close.


And, here we are. The above list reads as an eclectic soundtrack (sort of) set against some very un-eclectic subject matter. If nothing else, it provides comfort that no matter how dry the work, we can always turn to music to inject a bit of pizzazz into the daily slog.