Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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

Same Trailer Different Park, By Kacey Musgraves (Album of the Week)

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

This album is a lot better than it sounded to me on my first, casual listen. The first few songs are polished to the point of slickness, and sung by an awfully sweet and pretty voice, and my mind begins to shout objections. Where’s the authenticity? Where’s the grit? What kind of hothouse flower is this 25 year-old CMA phenom? Uggh – get me some growly Ryan Bingham stat!

That reaction is mostly because I’m a jerk, though. Maybe, just maybe, if there were a tiny streak of sexism in me, it could be that I find it harder to appreciate a beautiful feminine voice because it seems a little light and airy. Just maybe, if I had a bit of grumpy old man in me, I would roll my eyes at a 25 year-old writing about real-world experience unless she is straight out of Compton.

Amusingly, Robin’s review over at Deliberate Obfuscation struggles with some of the same prejudices. Unlike me, though, she thinks she could nail a karaoke version of some of these songs. (Yes, I realize that sentence is dangerously ambiguous.)

After a week of struggling with my own inner assholishness, I have come to appreciate this album a lot. Kacey Musgraves is a bright young talent who is likely to only get better. She’s smart, she has an eye for detail and an ear for music. Some of her songs are great, and her career has taken off since she finished 7th in Nashville Star (apparently, a TV singing competition) when she was 19. She’s going places, whether the grumpy old man in me likes it or not.

What is it that overcame my sexism and ageism? Mostly, it was the excellent lyrics accompanied by solid country sound. Her ode to RV life is a light-hearted romp:

Water and electric and a place to drain the septic
Any KOA is A-OK as long as I’m with you
So come on hitch your wagon
To the living room I’m draggin’
If I can’t bring you to my house
I’ll bring my house to you

She also demonstrates an admirable willingness to thumb her nose at the “Moral Majority” segment of the country music establishment, most notably in the final two songs of the album. In “Follow Your Arrow” she points out the futility of trying to escape the disapproval of others, and advises:

So make lots of noise
Kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points

She even repeats the “Follow your arrow/Wherever it points” in a sing-songy way that could make it a Disney song if not for where that arrow is pointing. She follows that advice with the believably immoral booty-call, “It is What it is”, in which she calls a former lover and suggests a pleasant way to pass the time:

But I ain’t got no one sleepin with me,
And you ain’t got no where that you need to be,
Maybe I love you,
Maybe I’m just kind of bored,
It is what it is
Till it ain’t,
Anymore

Now, let’s not fool ourselves. There’s definitely a well-thought-out career calculation involved in choosing to line up with the fun crowd in 2013, and she’s not exactly taking any Dixie Chick risk here, but she is walking a little closer to the edge than she needs to, and I appreciate the individuality.

This album was definitely worth the struggle of getting past my own prejudices. It’s not going to wind up on my top albums of all-time list, but I suspect that if Kacey Musgraves continues to step on toes and put out albums, her third or fourth album might be there.

Next up: Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis

The Blueprint 3, by Jay-Z (Album of the week)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Listening to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 is an enjoyable lesson in humility for a guy like me. The enjoyable part is the music – much of it is catchy, upbeat and big. Drum riffs, rhythm, lyrics that are a guilty chuckle – it’s a fun album. But it’s also a bit humbling. There’s a whole world out there that I don’t know anything about, and Jay-Z isn’t writing his songs to make me feel hip. The album is full of references and slang that I simply do not catch.

Shocking, isn’t it, that a middle-class, middle-aged white guy might have a bit of this album go over his balding head?

Perhaps even more shocking is that I liked it. This music was definitely not written for my ears, but its head-bobbing, foot-tapping rhythms penetrate even my sluggish senses. You don’t want to visualize or even know this, but I even busted a few corpulent moves while playing it loud this morning.

It surprised me how many of these songs I recognized. Jay-Z is a big deal, and his music reaches us even if we’re not actively seeking it. “Thank You”, “Empire State of Mind”, “A Star is Born”, “Reminder”, and “Young Forever” were all familiar.

So, what about the lyrics? What about the “N-word”, and the disrespect for women? What can I say – what should I say? The Deliberate Obfuscator goes there, and her review of our shared album is much more high-minded, serious and probably insightful. You should read it – she makes some good points.

Honestly, though, I can’t get that worked up about it. Part of it is that most of the lyrics come too rapidly for me to really hear them clearly. They function more as sounds than as narrative for me. I catch a phrase here and there, and I can sing along with most of the choruses. Much of what I catch is slang I don’t know or references that I don’t know. “I gave Doug a grip and lost a flip for five stacks.” Huh? “Look here-ah, see Ye is running the Chi like Gale Sayers.” Alright, gather that someone known as “Ye” is thriving in Chicago like Gale Sayers, a running back whose name I do recognize. Yea, me – I’m hip! But what does running a town mean – he talks a lot about it with Kanye and Rihanna in “Run this Town”, but I don’t really know what he’s talking about.

Amusingly, Jay-Z sparked a whole lot less controversy than Megyn Kelly when he announced, “Grown men want me to sit em on my lap/But I don’t have a beard and Santa Claus ain’t black.”

Again, I know this is not an album designed to enthrall Dan Ryan. I’m listening in on something that doesn’t intend to pertain to me. I could probably find out what all those references are and become more fluent in the slang, but, really, I’m okay just listening to the music and enjoying it on a shallow level. But if he starts dating my daughter, he better show her more respect than Shawty, whoever she is.

Next up: Same Tralier Different Park, by Kacey Musgraves

New Multitudes, by Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Cover Art Taken from Woody Guthrie's Notebooks

Woody Guthrie left notebooks full of unrecorded lyrics when he died too young in 1967. Through the years, various artists have mined this mountain, and, when Jay Farrar staked his claim, he invited Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames to join in.

There’s much to love on this album, but a few annoyances. “My Revolutionary Mind” grabs me with its joyfully blunt lyrics (“I need a progressive woman;/I need an awfully liberal woman; /Ain’t no reactionary baby /Can ease my revolutionary mind”), but then Yim Yames screws up the ending with an orchestral attack that only serves to make it sound like a Beatles out-take.

But at least that track has an abundance of actual music. Too many tracks suffer from spare lyrics coupled with minimalist arrangements – unless you have a fetish for sparsity, you’re going to have a hard time enjoying some of the tracks on this album (No Fear and Talking Empty Bed Blues, especially).

Ultimately, though, these songs stick with you. especially if you give it a few listens. The different approaches brought to the songs by the 4 performers gives it enough variety to keep you interested, and then you’re likely to find a few of the tunes running through your head. It’s a neat concept to put found lyrics into music, and I think each of the performers approached the project with sincerity and respect, and it rings through.

I think this is a great album that would have been mind-blowing if they had called me up before releasing it. I could have added a few instruments to a few songs, and then we would have a gem. Thank God I have a harmonica in my car, to save this album from itself.

NEXT UP: The Blueprint 3, by Jay-Z

Want to Play Along? – New Project/New Year’s Resolution with a Jump Start – Album of the Week

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

When all my friends were issuing their “Top Ten Albums of the Year” lists, I had to sit on the sideline, even though I listened to and enjoyed lots of great music in 2013. The reason was that I could not think of ten times that I sat down and actually listened attentively to an album (or CD, or MP3 album). I consumed plenty of music, but that is like consuming calories. I rarely ate a proper meal.

At the end of December, the Deliberate Obfuscator and I decided to choose one album per week, alternating choices, and give it a listen. They won’t all be new, and we will mix up the genres. We plan to discuss the albums at our regular Sunday lunch, and I will post a brief recap of our impressions here every week, along with the selection for the following week.

Let’s be clear about this – we aren’t professional music critics. We aren’t musicians, and we have not studied music or musical theory. We will boldly go wherever we choose, and report back honestly, but we acknowledge our ignorance. We’re currently listening to Jay-Z, and we are going to react to the album we are listening to, and we will do so that we are going to miss a ton of what a real Jay-Z fan would catch. The downside is that we are massively ignorant about much of jazz, hip-hop, latin music, contemporary classical, and dozens of other categories. The upside is that we are approaching it with a sincere desire to learn and to like.

Play along if you like. It would make it a whole lot more fun if you would listen to the same music, and offer your comments, corrections, amplifications, anecdotes, suggestions, and personal reviews.