Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

English Oceans, by the Drive-By Truckers (Album of the Week)

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

One of my favorite rowdy bands has grown up a bit, and the result is an album that demonstrates that kick-ass rock can be mature. “English Oceans” is a great album even without the bar-fighting brashness of earlier masterworks like “Southern Rock Opera”. It’s not a blunting of their edginess, but more of a skilled economy in wielding the blade.

The album is split between songs of singer-guitarists and co-founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Hood has a provocative, nasally voice that combines the best qualities of Neil Young and Mick Jagger with a southern twang, while Cooley sounds a bit like Willie Nelson and Brad Roberts from the Crash Test Dummies. Hood sounds like the guy who would get you into a bar fight, and Cooley sounds like the guy who would calmly tell you to take it outside.

As in past efforts, the Drive-By Truckers succeed when they are portraying characters from the ragged edge of the American south. “Pauline Hawkins” is an anti-romantic number that brings outstanding guitar riffs along with lyrics that start out :

Don’t call me your baby
I won’t answer
Love is like cancer
And I am immune

I doubt that one will be the first dance at many weddings, but it’s a heck of a song, and probably the most rocking song of the album.

It’s hard to pick a single favorite song off this album, because they cover so many moods and styles. “Natural Light” is a juke-box Western swing number with masterful guitar work stealing the show. “First Air of Autumn” is a calm, beautiful song that will make you hit “repeat”. “Primer Coat” echoes the guitar work of REM, and features the phrase “A girl as plain as a primer coat.” “Made Up English Oceans” mixes the sound of a spaghetti western ballad with a sharp summation of Lee Atwater and his tea-bagger spawn – “Once you grab them by their pride their hearts are bound to follow/Their natural fear of anything less manly or less natural.” “Grand Canyon” is a simply beautiful tribute to a member of their tour group who died suddenly – “I wonder how a life so sturdy could just one day cease to be.”

Robin really likes this album. Even though she was horribly misguided in her appreciation of Damien Jurado, she redeems her musical taste by her love of this album.

Like I said above, the only thing this album lacks is some of the cocky brashness of their earlier work, but it isn’t missed. I love the all-knowing sophomoric authority assumed in a song like “The Three Great Alabama Icons“, and I will never tire of “Let There Be Rock”, but those songs are steeped in a brand of swagger that is tough to maintain over a full career. An album like “English Oceans”, with its slightly more pensive outlook combined with solid southern rock, makes me believe that the Drive-By Truckers aren’t going to fade away.

Next up: G I R L, by Pharrell Williams

Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, by Damien Jurado (Album of the Week)

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

There’s nothing wrong with Damien Jurado that a good ass-kicking couldn’t fix. While I’m not seriously wishing physical harm to the guy, it would do him a world of good to have an actual conflict to jolt him out of the psychedelic dream-state that produced this twee, disengaged album.

The thing is, he’s a good, possibly great artist. The album has a pleasant sound to it – he’s melodically gifted, and the music is generally fairly lush. Even in an album I disliked for its several flaws, I’ll agree with his fans that he avoids unpleasantness – you would never snap off the radio during one of his songs.

Part of the problem is that he doesn’t trust his voice to deliver his music. Instead, he wraps it in soggy layers of sonic glop – echo chambers, backing choirs, falsetto, strange mixing, and on and on. When he actually just sings, he’s pretty darned good.

Another part of the problem is the material he wrote. This album is the second of two about a dream he had. He was wandering and encounters a group of space travelers or something out in the desert, and they’re “Silver” Katherine and “Silver” Timothy and nobody, not even his most devout fans who are enthralled with this album, has any idea what in the hell is supposed to be going on. What we get is a basically meaningless dreamscape that sounds vaguely spiritual or even religious, but isn’t quite. It’s just weird.

Perhaps it’s weird in a beautiful way. I suppose that one could get swept into the dreamy electronically-altered voice and sonic layers and really enjoy it. Personally, it didn’t work for me. I found myself frustrated by the indecipherable meaning and sloppy sound.

Robin, on the other hand, really liked this album. She allows herself to go along with Jurado, and finds “richly orchestrated pieces that pull from many musical styles to weave the resolution of a journey.” Good for her – she had a better time listening to it than I did.

Ironically, I may have paid too much attention to the album to simply enjoy it. Like I mentioned above, if the songs of this album showed up in a radio mix, you wouldn’t turn it off. It only really gets on my nerves if I listen to an entire album of Jurado’s silver navel-gazing, and I try to engage with it.

Now, if someone walks up to him, and cuffs him around a bit, he’s going to use that musical talent to describe something that we can relate to. If Jake Bugg took him for a walk around the housing project he grew up in, or if Kacey Musgraves broke his heart and then called him up for a romp in the sack, he would probably snap out of his two-album dream and make some music that the rest of us would be welcomed to enjoy.

Next up: English Oceans, by the Drive-By Truckers

Musical Update – Seeing Sharon Jones and the Dap-Tones LIVE! + Valerie June

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

Several weeks ago, Robin and I reviewed Give the People What They Want. We both loved it, and relished the energy of the album.

WOW! we journeyed to Lawrence’s Liberty Hall last night to see the group rock the stage, and they delivered. The brass was sharp, and had good dance moves. The Dap-ettes were fantastic, and opened with their own number. The whole show was tight – even the dancers pulled out of the audience on a few numbers were tremendous!

(My first cinematic posting.)

But the show was Sharon Jones. It’s hard to believe that she was getting treated for pancreatic cancer a year ago – the woman is a dancing, moving, high-voltage machine! She bounced around the stage like Richard Simmons on meth, and still had the lungs to belt songs out of the park. Amazing.

Valerie June opened, and she was great, too. Such a powerful voice, and tremendous charisma. She was at her best when it was just her – a string instrument and a voice.

If you get a chance to see either (or both) of these performances, just do it.

Elegancia Tropical, by Bomba Estereo (Album of the Week)

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

Listening to this album brought to mind the classic break-up line – “It’s not you, it’s me.” I can see how this is a fun, great, energizing listen for some people, but as a middle-aged, non-Spanish-speaking, dance-club-avoiding fuddy-duddy, I have to say that this one is not to my taste.

Robin, over at Deliberate Obfuscation, says that listening to music outside our “zone” is part of the reason for this “Album of the Week” project, but the rapid beat messes with her heart-rate and nervous system. How did we get so old?

If you’re into electronic dance music, though, this album brings it. Driving bass drums, bouncing rhythm, high-energy vocals – it’s all there. Stray sound-effects from science-fiction movies are strewn liberally through the rhythms. Electronic trills, drum machines, etc..

Even listening to it alone in my car, it transports me to a loud, crowded dance hall in someplace tropical. I was practically sweating and wanted to sip a watered down Long Island Iced Tea out of a plastic cup. My head bobbed and I expected the headlights to pivot and strobe. That’s great if you want to be in a sweaty dance club, but most days at 53, that’s not a major yearning for me.

Bomba Estereo (literally, “stereo bomb”, but translated by the band’s founder as “a really cool, awesome, bad ass party”) hales from Colombia. You’ll be spared a thoughtful analysis of how the lyrics explore nuances of that country’s culture because, well, the lyrics are all in Spanish. Not only are they in Spanish, most of them are in really rapid Spanish, so, even if I knew Spanish, I doubt I would know it well enough to keep up. I suspect, without really knowing, that the lyrics are pretty much typical dance stuff. I’m pretty sure the lyrics to “Lo Que Tengo Que Decir” are naughty, judging by the tone of voice . . .

Again, my inability to understand the lyrics is a case of “It’s not you, it’s me.” I realize that the majority of the world hears music in English and misses the lyrics, so turn-about is fair play. (We spent a couple weeks in Bolivia several years ago working on building a schoolhouse, and the local workers’ radio kept blaring “Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey, hey Mickey”, which struck me as hilariously weird Andean sound.) If you want to follow the words, though, be prepared for a fire hose of Spanish.

(This album was suggested by my friend Logtar, a native of Colombia. To test my own open-mindedness when I didn’t love his music, we visited a South American restaurant he recommends, Empanada Madness. I’m happy to report that I am a fan of that aspect of his culture that includes tasty stuff fried in dough. So don’t call me a xenophobe.)

Next up: Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, by Damien Jurado.

Benji, by Sun Kil Moon (Album of the Week)

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Debby Downer’s brother got a guitar and recorded an album full of wry observations about people suffering, dying, or just muddling through the challenges of life. This album is elevator music for the ride to the roof of a building you’re planning to jump off. It’s great road music for when you’re idling in your garage with the door closed.

All that said, though, this album is strangely enjoyable.

The singer/songwriter, Mark Kozelek, is smart, witty, clever and OMG honest. His lyrics don’t serve up sentimental mush about the sadness he depicts. In the first song, Carissa, he writes about a second cousin (grandchild of his uncle) who dies in a freakish fire caused by an aerosol can. His approach is typified by his first words:

Oh Carissa, when I first saw you, you were a lovely child
And the last time I saw you, you were fifteen and pregnant and running wild
I remember wondering, could there be a light at the end of your tunnel?
But I left Ohio then and had pretty much forgotten all about you
I guess you were there some years ago at a family funeral
But you were one of so many relatives I didn’t know which one was you

He’s a bit surprised by how broken up he is about it, and goes out to the funeral “though I’m not really needed.” His goal? To learn more about what happened, visit a few graves, and learn more about the cousin he didn’t really know, “For it is her life and death that I am helplessly drawn.”

That’s the whole charm of this album. We’re kind of helplessly drawn to its stories. They aren’t great stories because they are noble heroes (one of the songs is about a serial killer dying of natural causes), but because they are just as banal and real as Joe Sixpack dying of a heart attack shoveling snow or a wreck on the highway. Everyone slows down and looks at a wreck, but what do we really want to see? This album describes it.

One thought repeated twice in the first song bothers me about this album – that he is “Meant to give her [his dead second cousin] life poetry, or to make sure her name is known across every city.” To me, that hope seems so grand that he seems ridiculously self-important. “Now to find some poetry, to make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning/In this senseless tragedy, O Carissa, I’ll sing your name across every sea.” Sorry, Mark, but I’m not sure that you singing this song in some basement coffeehouse in Amsterdam is going to demonstrate the power of eternal art over mortality.

Perhaps I am just being a jerk. Perhaps he is only singing of giving himself some sense of meaning. The poetry he’s coming up with is so understated. Just a guy with a guitar (a couple drums and harmonies show up on the album, but this is mostly just straight-on singer/songwriter stuff), half-singing unmetered, loose rhymes with a voice like Son Volt’s. For somebody wrestling with trying to bring meaning to the early death of a young mother, he’s not exactly shaking the gates of heaven or screaming on a mountaintop at the gods. He’s gently picking his guitar and telling her story.

To the surprise of nobody who knows us, Robin’s take on the album is both more serious and more generous than mine. Where I find self-importance, she finds a simple acknowledgement of his role as an artist. This is the furthest apart we’ve been on an album so far. I can’t wait for the coming flame wars . . .

Next up: Elegancia Tropical, by Bomba Estereo

Home Town Heroes, by Hurray for the Riff Raff (Album of the week)

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Choosing a new CD to listen to from the pages of the Wall Street Journal might not be as cool as falling for an opening band, tracking down an artist you overhear in a coffee shop, or mining a friend’s mix CD , but that is really where I first heard about Hurray for the Riff Raff and their new album, Home Town Heroes.

Smart, lovely, and wide-ranging, this is a great album. Not just good, but truly great. It reminds me a bit of Cowboy Junkies without their occasional annoying self-indulgence.

It opens with “Blue Ride Mountain”, a homespun little ditty with banjo and hand-clapping, and a chorus that could have been yanked from a children’s song. Simplicity itself and it sticks with you.

The next song is “Crash on the Highway”. I was expecting an over-wrought “Teen Angel” knockoff, but instead got another simple gem about being stuck on a tour bus. It sounds just like she got stuck in a traffic jam in Germany, pulled out her guitar and improvised a song of longing for New Orleans.

Ahh, New Orleans. Over the past 9 years, we have fallen in love with the city that my daughter and grand-puppy now call home, and if the WSJ had not mentioned New Orleans in their write-up, I probably would not have listened trusted its advice. Lucky me – NOLA makes me happy again.

While I’m on my digression from the album, I should mention that Alynda Lee Segarra, the lead singer and writer of the group, hales from New York City, but she hopped freighter trains to settle a wander-lust, winding up in New Orleans. That’s the sort of biographical detail that makes me uncomfortable if I think about it too much. Like a politician volunteering in soup kitchens or a college athlete befriending a nerd, it’s a little too perfect to believe. I’m not saying it’s not true, but it’s a stupid thing for someone to do, and that’s not why I like the music. I’ve seen what train equipment does to people, and I hope young artist’s find better ways to establish their bona fides than riding the rails.

Public safety rant over and back to the music. The first two songs are simple, and a lot of the others could be performed by an acoustic guitar and a voice, but some of the best are more lush in their arrangements. “St. Roch Blues” comes in with harmonies, keyboard, electric guitar and a great drum kit, and it is one of the best songs I’ve heard in years. Socially significant, heart-searing, and soft and cutting – utterly beautiful.

This album is enthralling. Its songs range from simple to complex. They’re well-written and beautifully performed. It’s hard to believe there’s going to be a better album released in 2014. Yes, it really is that good.

Robin’s not quite as enthusiastic, which kind of shocks me.  I tend to struggle with women’s voices more than she does, but not this time.  I can’t explain her ambivalence – you’d think I’d have her figured out after 35 and a half years of sharing music, but she’s still an enigma sometimes.  But, trust me, my enthusiasm is the more valid opinion, and she kind of comes around.

Next up, Benji by Sun Kil Moon

Slave Ambient, by War on Drugs (Album of the Week)

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

This album was Robin’s choice for our series (we alternate), and I’m glad she did. I don’t think I would have happened upon them otherwise, or if I had stumbled across a track, I don’t think I would have noticed how really good they are. This album is solid rock and roll, but it’s not designed to grab you and make you pay attention.

Part of the issue is that the influences on this group shine clearly. The first song, “Best Night”, is Tom Petty. The second one, “Brothers”, is Bob Dylan. The third, “I Was There”, is Neil Young. You could make a parlor game ripping sounds out of this album and assigning them to classic rockers. I even caught a bit of Joe Jackson in one of the songs.

But that’s kind of unfair, I think. The music feels authentic – it’s not like they found a trunk full of sounds in the attic and just tossed them together to appeal to my nostalgic demographic. The album has urgency, built with steady, steady beats and all kinds of embellishments, from electronica to some crisp guitar work. It’s kind of unusual to hear the sounds that could come from a synthesizer band popping up in a straightforward rock song, but it works.

All that said, this album somehow just misses for me. Something is missing. Maybe it’s the lack of a ringing chorus to hang on to, or maybe it’s the pretty smoothing over of the synthesizer work, but I can listen to most of this album without bobbing my head or wanting to sing along. There’s nothing wrong with this album, but it doesn’t grab me. It doesn’t annoy or offend me in any way, but it isn’t compelling. I can’t imagine anyone listening to any of these songs and saying “You’ve GOT to listen to this.” On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone snapping off the radio when one of these songs come on.

This album just kind of takes up space, reminding you of its influences, but not rising to their level.

Robin, with her tendency to research deeper than I do, comes up with a more informed review, but, ultimately, she agrees that it is ambient music that kind of slips by you if you don’t work extra-hard to pay attention.

Next up, Small Town Heroes, by Hurray for the Riff Raff

Give the People What They Want, by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (Album of the Week)

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

If the people want classic, enjoyable, snap-your-fingers funk and soul with clear and brassy-voiced female vocalist, this album is exactly what they want. I suppose there may be people out there who would not like this album, but I would never want to hang out with them. This is fun stuff, and you’ve got to be able to enjoy it.

It’s all here. Swinging brass, bopping sax, great bass lines, sharp vocals delivered crisply and accented with classic back-up singers, even shaking tambourines. You’ve heard this music before, back in the late 60s and the 70s, on tinny transistor radios, from people like Diana Ross and Gladys Knight. Some of these songs could have been slipped onto the American Graffiti soundtrack album and nobody would have been the wiser.

I guess that leads to a question. What’s the point? There’s no new sound here – why listen to it instead of the already-established masters? Even acknowledging that this is top-shelf stuff, isn’t it several decades late coming to the party?

Two answers (rationalizations?) come to mind. First, there’s always room at the top, and this album belongs at the top of the heap of Temptations, Supremes, Pips, Shirelles, and the rest. Yes, it really is that good – it’s not some pale throw-back. It’s full-blooded and wonderful.

Second, this is survival music. It has contemporary meaning – it might be a sound that we associate with a certain era, but it is fresh and vital like Brubeck or Patsy Cline or Bob Marley. It’s not nostalgia – it’s mood and meaning.

There’s a backstory to this album that banishes nostalgia for me. Sharon Jones was a corrections officer at Rikers Island. She’s not some slick corporate trick pulled out of a conservatory. This album was supposed to come out in 2013, but they shelved it when Sharon Jones was diagnosed with Stage II pancreatic cancer. And the Dap-Kings have been around for years, and toured with Amy Winehouse, where I am certain they saw the catalog of contemporary woes. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings somehow bring fresh urgency to their music. There’s a seriousness that is way, way back in their music. It’s the same seriousness that infused the music of those Motown artists with a depth beyond the lyrics focused on dancing and dating in an age of blatant racism and segregation.

This is fun, completely enjoyable music. But we love it because the pain is real, and the survival is real. When Sharon Jones tells her man to “get out”, she might as well be singing about whatever is bothering you at work today. When she swaggers through “Stranger to My Happiness”, we share her determination to get on with life.

Maybe this is a bunch of BS, and I just like this album because it sounds great and reminds me of when I was a kid. I think there’s more, though, because it somehow feels a lot bigger than that.

The Deliberate Obfuscator also appreciates the energy and wants to see a live show. Yes, indeed, that would be a helluva good time!

Next Up: Slave Ambient, by War on Drugs

Jake Bugg (Album of the Week)

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Jake Bugg is a month away from his 20th birthday, but his eponymous album has won critical and popular approval. It takes guts to tackle the “kid with a guitar” genre head on, but Jake Bugg’s effort is moody and engaging. The sound of this album could come from the B-sides of old 45s – he pays homage to Bob Dylan and Buddy Holly while making his own music.

It’s all about the sound for this kid. I was actually disappointed when I read the lyrics. The performances make them sound more meaningful and inspired than they really are – which I think is quite a testimony in favor of the music. Here, for example, are the complete lyrics to his song, Fire:

Girl, baby girl
Will you come back home?
To me
For this darkest night won’t ever let her be

And sing, fire, fire, fire
Oh I’ll sing for you
My girl
Baby blue

Babe, oh babe
Will you love me so?
When I have to go
For this darkest night won’t ever let her speak

And sing, fire, fire, fire
Oh my darling you, are blue
For me

I promise, it sounds like there’s a lot more to it when you listen to the song! It helps that his voice has a vinegarish quality that gives an edge you wouldn’t expect in such a young performer.

Despite his youth, Jake Bugg gets a little bit more credibility than I might have offered Kacey Musgraves because he grew up in a massive housing project in England. His look-back song, Two Fingers, proclaims “I got out I got out I’m alive but I’m here to stay/ . . . /Hey, hey it’s fine/I left it behind.”

His youth and English outlook provide an unintended bit of wry irony in the unfortunately over-stated “Seen it All”, where he writes about crashing a gangster party where “a friend took me aside said everyone here has a knife.” Too which I can only say, GASP! A knife?! Golly, what about slingshots – do they have slingshots? Sure enough, someone gets dragged outside and stabbed, leaving young Jake Bugg to react, “I’ve seen it all now I swear to god /I’ve seen it all nothing shocks me anymore after tonight.” Please, music industry, don’t let Jake Bugg do a tour in the United States, where we have a gun homicide rate 90 times higher than the UK – and a total homicide rate 4 times higher. No, Jake, you haven’t seen it all until you see a child getting buried after a drive-by while fear-choked political idiots insist that it’s all part of our right to have a “well-regulated militia”.

Sadly, Jake Bugg is in for a few more shocks in his life. For his music, though, I think that will be a good thing. His lyrics need to grow up a bit for him to be a complete artist. He manages to wring some truly impressive material out of a couple years of adulthood. This album is great – really great – and if I could pre-order his next album, I would. Better yet, I wish I could order an album from a couple decades in the future. [Having now read Deliberate Obfuscation's review, I learned that he has already released a second album. I'll be listening soon.] If his debut sets the trajectory I believe it sets, he could stand with or exceed any of the greats. He’s that good.

My partner in this series of reviews, and pretty much everything else, gets kind of mooshy about his looks and sensitivity, but she agrees he’s got a lot of talent. Go read her review here – she tracked down a few videos of him performing.

Next up, Give the People What They Want, by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis (Album of the Week)

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Listening to Kind of Blue is like swimming in a river. The waves, the current, the sense of movement and subtle change, even the two-shored boundlessness of a river carry me into the music. Where a pop song has the dependable rectangularity of verse, chorus, verse chorus and the 3-4 minute end is always in sight, you don’t know what’s around the next bend, but it will be the same river with the same currents and rhythm.

I greatly enjoyed this album, but I need to acknowledge that I do so from a position of near-complete ignorance. I had to resort to a fairly elaborate metaphor in my first paragraph because I don’t have the technical expertise to describe the thing itself. If you look elsewhere, you can read about how this album represents a break from be-bop and a move toward modal jazz. It somehow freed jazz from restrictions placed on it by scales, or something like that. I don’t know or understand how experts chose this as one of the most influential jazz albums of all time.

So, this puts me in the “I don’t know art, but I know what I like” camp, I suppose – a place populated by defenders of Kenny G with Thomas Kincaid paintings on their walls. I’m not proud of that, or even, really, accepting of that. Ignorance is not okay. My lack of jazz or even musical knowledge is a failing, not a naive strength.

Kind of Blue is melodic, and it’s accessible for enjoyment. But I realize that I do not appreciate Kind of Blue in the way that a real musician might. Enjoyment without real appreciation is the best I can do.

One of the quirks of instrumental music is that it works on my imagination or thought process, such that I really struggle to focus entirely on the music itself. The problem, if it is a problem, is heightened when I am listening to a CD instead of witnessing live music. With live music, I can watch the performers and really focus on the music, but a CD offers a solely aural experience, and I find myself distracted. Even great jazz like this becomes background music – great background music – when I listen on CD. Lyrics in pop songs keep me anchored in the music a little better, but Kind of Blue allows my thoughts and imagination to wander along. Not a bad thing, at all, but more evidence that I am not getting as much out of this music as a better listener might.

If you’re not particularly well-informed about modal jazz or musical theory, I imagine that you will find this album extremely enjoyable. If you are a musician or a student of music, everything I read says that you will recognize this album as a work of genius. Either way, Kind of Blue is an album that you ought to have in your rotation.

The Deliberate Obfuscator also enjoyed this album, though she brings slightly more sophistication to her appreciation as a former (current, occasionally?) trumpet player.

Next up: Jake Bugg, by Jake Bugg