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.

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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,
G