Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Of The Rest Of 14: Synths & Who's New (To Me)

Synthesized But Not Synthetic

Thank god Matt Taibbi is back, because Rolling Stone had the worst Best Albums of the Year list of, well, the year. U2, Bruce Springsteen? Only Jan Wenner thought those albums were among the best of 2014. And Taylor Swift at #10? I heard Wenner broke his sacroiliac contorting himself to pander to so many audiences. But one big thing they did get right was putting Thom Yorke's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes on there. Much coverage focused on his method of releasing it as a BitTorrent file, but after you've downloaded the thing (you can also get it from Bandcamp) the music is what matters. And the music is very good, with Yorke's angelic tenor sounding better than ever over slightly off-kilter electronic grooves. Perhaps the only thing keeping TMB off my Top 20 was a slight sense of over-familiarity - as if this is pretty much the album we would expect him to make. But if Yorke is content to tread water, I'm happy to paddle next to him in his rarified ocean.

Fans of Washed Out and M83 should also delve into the soundscapes of Michael Hammond, composer, sound-designer, and singer, released under the name No Lands. An arty and ambient take on synth pop (think Talk Talk's Spirit Of Eden), debut album Negative Space is gorgeous and never ceases to be intriguing

Although some reviews seemed to expect dance music from Patten's Estoile Naiant, it was really a series of electronic collages that kept moving forward without resorting to cheap rhythmic techniques. Mouse On Mars is in his DNA, just as Kraftwerk and Neu are in the DNA of Finland's Siinai. Their album Supermarket was expertly executed and focused on telling the story of a trip to, yes, the supermarket. Delightful and eerie in equal measures. When I think of Siinai, I often think of Seekae (something about the vowels), who released two albums in 2014. The Worry, the more song-based of the two, finds him working out some personal stuff over moody and colorful backgrounds. I like his plainspoken voice better than James Blake's and find him less pretentious overall. Find Seekae.

It could be coincidence or it could be the ripple effect of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's Oscar-winning soundtrack to The Social Network, but either way three of the year's most striking electronic albums were also soundtracks. Mica Levi's score to sci-fi art film Under The Skin creates a chilling mental movie using very simple elements. I wouldn't have expected such bleak rigor from the leader of the irritating Micachu & The Shapes, and I hope her dark night of the soul continues. Cliff Martinez of Drive fame is always worth listening to and kudos to the producers of The Knick for going with his anachronistic electronics instead of a period score. As always, Martinez's work is as slippery as a murderous icicle and just as cold. Son Lux has long been a favorite of mine and a nice end-of-year surprise was having his Original Music From And Inspired By: The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby drop on Spotify. Beautiful stuff, on the more ethereal side for him but with that signature feeling of consequence throughout.

I was on the Twigs tip before she was FKA and eagerly awaited her first full-length. As much as I tried, however, I did not swoon for LP1, finding it static and over-thought, although I did like Video Girl. At first I thought part of the problem with her album was that Alejandro Ghersi, better known as Arca, didn't produce the whole thing. His &&&&& EP was so stunning, as was his work on FKA Twigs early EP2 (not to mention the stuff he did for Kanye West on Yeezus), that I thought he could have saved LP1. But then his own album, Xen, came out and it was just as stiff, seeming to wither on the vine while I listened to it. The one highlight was Thievery, which burst from the general torpor with a beat straight from the dancehall. Hopefully Arca and FKA Twigs will get over themselves and serve up something more tasty in the future - they've both got the talent to do it.

Feels Like The Very First Time

Here's a quick rundown of some folks I heard for the first time in 2014 and who I now consider in the club, so to speak. They weren't all new artists but they were new to me.

I loved Courtney Barnett's draggy sound, witty lyrics, dynamite guitar and pure rock'n'roll attitude, all of which suffused the catchy, heartfelt songs on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. After seeing her rip the Bowery Ballroom apart by turning all those qualities up to 11, I know she has an even better record in her. Can't wait.

Eddie Dixon's Bump Key, which I might have found on Bandcamp myself if he hadn't contacted me first, was full of fractured Americana. I've also been having a ball discovering his earlier albums.

I had a wonderful night in Nashville thanks to Wild Ponies and Catherine Ashby and I've really enjoyed reliving it through their recent releases, Things That Used To Shine and Tennessee Tracks. Both records are filled with great music and great potential.

I've long enjoyed Sylvie Simmons writing in Mojo Magazine and elsewhere - who knew that she was hiding her quirky light as a singer-songwriter under a bushel? Her debut album, Sylvie, was beyond charming.

Ian William Craig is an operatically-trained Canadian tenor who knows his way around the studio, seeming to construct the spooky, layered pieces that make up A Turn Of Breath out of scraps of half-remembered sound. Striking stuff.

Richard Dawson has one of the weirdest takes on British folk I've ever heard, torturing an out-of-tune guitar till it bleeds. It's hard to tell if he knows exactly what he's doing on Nothing Important but I can assure you it sounds like nothing else.

Ben Howard's cinematic folk is far more conventional, touching on Coldplay at times, but there is a passionate heart beating underneath it all, and the tracks on his second album, I Forget Where We Were, often build to a real intensity

When Nick Mulvey was a member of the Portico Quartet, they were nominated for a Mercury Prize. He was nominated again for his solo debut, First Mind, which draws on folk, jazz and latin rhythms some of the same nubby-sweater warmth of classic Cat Stevens. His voice is a reassuring burr and he packs a lot of incident, melody and intelligence into his well-arranged songs.

Lastly, TV Girl's French Exit was a fun trip on the lighter side. These guys know their sixties pop and their St. Etienne and put it all together into shiny, smart packages with a faint sense of amusement. Don't let them have all the fun - join in.

What new discoveries did you make this year?

Still to come: Classical & Composed and Out Of The Past.

P.S. Since Thom Yorke hates Spotify as much as Taylor Swift (although perhaps for different reasons (and they're both dead wrong)), he is not represented on the playlist above - don't let that stop you from hearing Tomorrow's Modern Boxes.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Best Of The Rest Of 14: Hip Hop & Jazz

Hip Hop Is Not Dead, But It May Be On Vacation

I'm willing to take the heat for not signing on to proclaim Run The Jewels 2, the second album from the duo comprised of Killer Mike and El-P, the second coming. It's good, some of it is even great, but none of it as good as Killer Mike at his best, such as on R.A.P. Music, my #7 album from 2012, also produced by EL-P. EL-P is brilliant behind the boards, one of the finest, but he's only an OK rapper and I just don't want to hear him on every song. Having been in the trenches with Killer Mike since he stepped out from OutKast's shadow with Monster in 2003, I reserve the right to be a connoisseur of his unique charms. I just hope that everyone who fell over RTJ2 will check that first album (you can get a CD of it for .55 CENTS on Amazon!) out along with R.A.P. Music and the nearly as brilliant Pl3dge

Of the other beats and rhymes I returned to over the year, young Isaiah Rashad's Cilvia Demo is the one that still draws blank stares, even though it hit the Billboard charts at number 40. So much for sales. Despite having nine producers, it's a very consistent sounding record, woozy and soulful and Rashad has serious flow, never straining to put across his well constructed verses. While he gets more personal than most, which is great, I also found that some of the seeming profundity dissolved on repeated listens. One to watch, for sure. 

Freddie Gibbs has about 10 years on Rashad but is still in the early part of his career. PiƱata gave this gritty, down-to-earth rapper the endorsement of one of the greatest beat constructors of all time, Madlib, who produced the whole album. If Gibbs wasn't quite up to the challenge lyrically, the collection is still quite excellent. Madlib also did the soundtrack for Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton, the fine documentary about the Stones Throw label. If you're looking to add a little weight to your own collection, you can pick up a nice collection of his cues on a 10" disc.

A new release from Mobb Deep always gets my attention, and if The Infamous Mobb Deep was not quite a return to form, it's a solid record with at least two great songs in Low (feat. Mack Wilds) and Waterboarding, which is a few years old but needs more ears. Also,the deluxe edition came with some unbelievable archive material from their still-astonishing mid-90's emergence - worth the price.

You're Dead!, the fifth album from Flying Lotus, was another seamless slab of beauty, but while there were amazing moments (listen for the Rosemary's Baby theme), it was not quite the sum of its parts. I've listened to literally dozens of hours of Miles Davis at his wildest (mostly unofficial releases) and while it's nice to know FlyLo is also up on that stuff, I'm not blown away by his take, even with Herbie Hancock sitting in. Something about his music stimulates my creativity, though, so I'm glad to have more of it. His protege (and son of Bobby) Taylor McFerrin gave us the lighter-than-air Early Riser, which I liked quite a lot. I'm on the fence if it belongs here or down there in the jazz section - either way, more, please. Catch him when he opens for Hollie Cook at the Highline Ballroom on January 8th, 2015. Dream date!

Another hip hop-infused studio wizard with ties to both Stones Throw and Flying Lotus, is Ras G, who had his name on at least a few albums this year, including Raw Fruit Vol. 3 and Down To Earth Vol. 2. The latter is seriously murky, like a dub-inflected version of old hip hop, but always in the pocket. My favorite is probably Raw Fruit Vol. 3, a collection that proves once again that funky and goofy are not that far apart, and that both can be beautiful.

Also on Stone's Throw was MNDSGN's Yawn Zen, a song cycle of gleaming sounds that had the intimacy of diary entries. I would hate for it to go overlooked.

Finally, Pusha-T's Lunch Money, produced by Kanye West, is a postcard from the edge, hopefully announcing hip hop's return in force in 2015.

On The Jazzy Side Of The Street

While I admit that much of my engagement with the jazzier spectrum of music is retrospective (you mean there's yet another great Freddie Hubbard album on CTI?), a couple of new things caught my ear. Macroscope by The Nels Cline Singers has no vocalists per se (there is some wordless singing) but it does have Cline, one of the most phenomenal and versatile guitarists of our time, playing knotty and spectacular things with a group of equals. Cline is using his time off from Wilco well, also releasing an acclaimed series guitar duets with Julian Lage.

More straightforward and filled with relaxed charm was Bobby Hutcherson's Enjoy The View, which marked the 73-year-old vibraphonist's return to the legendary Blue Note label. Since the other players are Hammond organ king (and trumpeter!) Joey DeFrancesco, sax icon David Sanborn, and veteran drummer Billy Hart (700 albums as a sideman - and counting), it's very much a group effort. Wisely under-produced by Don Was, this is an inviting and lighthearted album. None of these players need to show off at this point in their careers so they just enjoy each other's company and we get to listen in. Thanks to Richard Williams, whose excellent blog, The Blue Moment, brought me here.

Still to come: Who's New (To Me), EP's, Synths, Classical & Composed and Out Of The Past.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Best Of The Rest Of 14: Old Favorites, New Sounds

At the beginning of every year I start a Spotify playlist called Of Note In [insert year] which is my place to dump interesting sounding tracks, whether its  things I read about, songs people recommend, or new releases from artist I follow. If it's not on Spotify I have to work a little harder to keep track but I have other ways. If you use Spotify and want to keep up with most of what I'm listening to, you can follow the playlist and then you will get a little notification whenever I add something to the list. That way you can avoid that "Wow, I could've had a V8!" moment when I start posting my best of lists. Get a leg up and start following Of Note In 2015 now.

Having done the heavy lifting of the Top 20, now it's time to draw attention the other things that got me going over the last (nearly) 12 months. First up: new records from some familiar faces.

Old Favorites, New Sounds: 

While I loved the last two albums by The Strokes, I thought Casablancas' first solo album was awful. Phrazes For The Young seemed to play to every one of his weaknesses, with out of tune singing, stilted melodies and a cheap sound. Tyranny by Julian Casablancas + The Voidz is a different beast altogether, and it is a beast, with a sound that bolts blistering guitars to boxy electronics and features what seem almost like random noises that drop in and out, in a strange approximation of dub techniques. Casablancas distorts his voice more than ever, which is ironic considering Tyranny is supposed to be a concept album about wealth inequality and an overbearing security state (I think). I can tell that he thinks what he's singing about is really important, and for some reason that's enough for me. Also, there is an almost operatic sweep that comes through, especially on the nearly 11 minute Human Sadness, which makes for exciting listening. The ambition Casablancas brings to Tyranny is almost overwhelming, with through-composed song structures, deep layering in the production, and a slight sense of mania. I didn't know he had this in him, which is a rare thing to say about an artist I'm so familiar with. While it would make me sad if there were never another Strokes album, Tyranny makes me wonder if Casablancas has actually outgrown them. There's no end to where he goes from here.

When Lucinda Williams is in her sweet spot, it's almost always good, and much of her first double album, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, is very good, if not quite at the level of her last album, Blessed. But West Memphis is one of her greatest songs ever, with Tony Joe White adding extra swampiness to possibly the grooviest song about injustice since Dylan's Hurricane. 

EMA's The Future's Void had much that fascinated but it was not quite the major statement I had hoped for. Still, nobody does quite what she does so I was glad for a follow-up to the shattering Past Life Martyred Saints, one of the great records of the century. Even quirkier, The Pink Caves, the second album from German-American band Fenster found them hoeing their fragile little row with more great songs and homemade sounds, and indie stalwarts Cibo Matto returned with Hotel Valentine, their most entertaining album since Viva La Woman. 

Almost Like The Blues is now in the pantheon of great Leonard Cohen songs, no matter if the album, Popular Problems, didn't entirely live up to its promise. Now 80, Cohen has certainly been more productive of late than Aphex Twin, who took 13 years off before releasing Syro. Expectations ran high, naturally, and while it was a very good album, with some of his jammiest tracks yet, it wasn't the roadmap to the future that he used to provide. Speaking of elder states-people, do yourself a favor and listen to the first five songs on Marianne Faithfull's Give My Love To London. If the rest of it had kicked that much ass, it might have been in my Top 20.

Brian Eno celebrated his new bromance with Underworld's Karl Hyde by putting out not one but two fine albums, Someday World and High Life. The first found the two finishing some of Eno's old pop songs in the vein of Wrong Way Up, Eno's 1990 collaboration with John Cale, and the second was filled with expansive yet incisive jams that announced Hyde as an afro-beat inspired guitar magus. Parquet Courts also put out two scrappy, fun records but might want to contemplate bringing a little more focus to their thing next time. Of the two, Sunbathing Animal had more staying power with me than Content Nausea.

Coming next: Hip Hop.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Best Of 14 (Part 2)

1. Hiss Golden Messenger: Lateness Of Dancers - The first time I listened to to M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsch's fifth album as Hiss Golden Messenger, I dismissed it. "Somebody really likes Slow Train Coming!" I thought, before moving on. Granted, that was more of an impression I had gotten from their earlier stuff, finding it held back by an almost aplogetic politesse. But the fact is I really like Slow Train Coming, and there aren't many records that sound like It, so I kept going back. Gradually I tuned into the almost outrageous audacity of Taylor and Hirsch's strip-mining of the past, not only Dylan but a lot of other 60's and 70's folk rock. They just don't care what you think and their lack of concern is what cuts them free. I knew I was smitten when I began Tweeting lyrics regularly. "I think I'm obsessed," I told my wife, "I think this is the best album of the year."

Taylor and Hirsch produced the album themselves, calling on a brilliant cast of musicians to make the sound in their heads a reality. They came up with a nice blend of studio polish and casual intimacy ("The name of this song is called Day O Day," Taylor's kid says before that song begins) that fits the songs like a well-worn glove. This is what it sounds like when a band comes into their own. If you need convincing, seek out the earlier version of Lucia, the first song on the album, which they recorded years ago when they were in The Court & Spark. The production on that take is so overbearing you can't even connect to the chorus. Now, when Taylor sings "She was beautiful/It was circumstance/Watch the boat on the water learn to dance," I just nod my head as if I were there on the banks of the wise old river with him.

Among many wise decisions Hiss Golden Messenger made when crafting Lateness Of Dancers, one of the wisest was bringing in Mountain Man's Alexandra Sauser-Monnig to be the sweet Emmylou to Taylor's gritty and slurred Dylan/Parsons. On several songs, her voice limns his gorgeously, blending, echoing and circling around it like touches of color in a winter-gray sky. One reason their partnership works so well is that Taylor is now the complete master of his voice, knowing when to push it, when engage in almost exotic melisma, and when to deliver the words with utmost delicacy, as if they might break under the emotional weight.

Finally, a note about those words. These 10 songs contain some of the finest song lyrics of the decade, line after line of arresting imagery, heartfelt stories and choruses as solid as a hymn. "I lost myself in the jack-knife daylight/I sang "Rock Of Ages" til I was cross-eyed" (Black Dog Wind) or "The dead are here, they never go away/So I never ask them to" (Mahogany Dread) are just two examples of Taylor's plain spoken yet well-crafted writing. He's also not afraid to kick up some dirt on Saturday's Song, evince a beguiling malevolence on I'm A Raven (Shake Children) or not-so-simply rock out on Southern Grammar, making for a varied album.

The title of Lateness Of Dancers comes from the pen of another southern great, Eudora Welty, in her story Delta Wedding and the album is truly a flawless marriage of old and new. Lateness Of Dancers has become so entwined with my soul that I no longer just listen to it, rather I commune with it. Taylor and Hirsch have worked long and hard to get here and I feel truly lucky to have met up with them at this point in their journey.

2. Beck: Morning Phase - Much of the criticism of this remarkable return to form focused on its similarities to Sea Change as Beck assembled the same musicians in the studio for the first time since he made that album over a decade ago. But even if the players are the same, I find it quite a different listening experience, lacking the self-pity that marked some of Sea Change. Somewhat paradoxically, Morning Phase is more distant, even magisterial, while connecting on a deeper level to shared human experience. Follow the drum.

3. Breton: War Room Stories - Album number two from London's post-modernists finds them expanding their sound with orchestral arrangements and pop moves. While America sleeps, they are also becoming one of the best live bands on the planet. Now you can prepare yourself further with the deluxe edition, which adds 11 additional songs.

4. David Greilsammer: Scarlatti & Cage Sonatas - While Greilsammer's technique is formidable, what's more remarkable is his absolute commitment to such different composers. Simply one of the best, most engaging piano records I've ever heard.

5. Hollie Cook: Twice - Another bliss-inducing dose of pharmaceutical grade reggae-pop-dance songs. Prince Fatty controls the boards again, lavishing his usual expert roots sound with strings, harps and a touch of Chic. Keep this one away from the polar ice cap, as we're having enough trouble keeping that thing from melting as it is. Warm yourself when Cook returns to New York on January 8th.

6. Spoon: They Want My Soul - Britt Daniel, Jim Eno and co. add yet another brilliant collection to one of the deepest catalogs in the post-Nirvana landscape, and maybe their toughest album yet. Bonus meta-moment: listen for the reappearance of former nemesis Jonathan Fisk, who gets a drubbing along with "educated folk-singers" on the title track.

7. The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger: Midnight Sun - After so many years championing Sean Lennon's talent, it is very satisfying to see him have his moment with this collection of beautifully crafted and emotionally resonant psyche-rock.

8. Hamilton Leithauser: Black Hours - "Don't know why I need you, I don't need anyone," Leithauser sings on this triumphant album, his first without his band The Walkmen. Perhaps he's singing to Paul Maroon, the guitarist in that band, who is nearly as essential to the success of Black Hours as Leithauser himself. Perhaps less needed was the help of Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, whose two contributions are not at the level of the others, but the vinyl edition sounds fantastic and comes with four more wonderful songs that are.

9. Tweedy: Sukierae - In a year filled with excellent releases from Wilco world, Jeff Tweedy, with the able help of drummer son Spencer, released this songwriting masterclass. With songs that are alternately haunting, arty, funny, and pure pop, Tweedy proves that there's still life in the White Album paradigm.

10. Nicole Atkins: Slow Phaser - Smart, sleek, hook-filled pop is hard to come by, although there is plenty of over-praised music masquerading as such. Atkins is the real deal, a complex character with huge voice that can swing from smoky to sweet. Tore Johansson, who produced Slow Phaser free of charge to help Atkins out after Hurricane Sandy took out her house, proves that all Swedish producers aren't calculating chart-hounds. Every track is filled out with well-placed touches that serve the songs perfectly and enhance their inherent catchiness. I find myself singing We Wait Too Long and The Worst Hangover ("Operator, operator, give me number 911 - I'm dying") among others, at odd moments, like as soon as I wake up. If you procrastinated on buying this since I last wrote about, I forgive you as it is now available in a deluxe edition that features a storming live set taped earlier this year at Detroit's Masonic Temple. Now, you have no excuse.

Coming soon: The Best of the Rest of 14 and Out Of The Past (Reissues and Other Older Sounds). What's your Number One?

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Best Of 14 (Part 1)

Just three of the great records included in 11-20.
My turntable, CD player, iPod and Spotify account have all runneth over with fantastic music this year. Hopefully my attempt to quantify the many, many great records I've heard this year into a Top 20 list won't keep me awake at night, but you really should not rest until you've heard all of these. First up, 11-20.

11. Debby Schwartz: A Garden Of My Own - In which my old friend Debby makes good on the promise she showed all those years ago in the Aquanettas. 

12. Brooklyn Rider: American Almanac - Furious energy and a spate of new commissions make this the string quartet album of the year. 

13. Hospitality: Trouble - Hospitality maintain their charm while deepening and darkening their sound with hints of glacial prog and electro.

14. Kate Tempest: Everybody Down - I recently read that a large percentage of those who were shortlisted for the Mercury Prize had sold less than a 1,000 copies of their albums. I certainly hope that Kate Tempest, who was a member of that select group, has found more listeners than that. Of course "sales" are only one measure of success in today's world and, while Tempest was ultimately passed over for the Mercury, it would have been just one more award for this decorated poet, rapper, playwright and novelist. Everybody Down is a kaleidoscopic song cycle about young Londoners set to state of the art, insistently danceable beats by Dan Carey. Tempest makes the most of her slightly raspy voice, finding melodies in the words and inhabiting the different characters with total commitment. New details emerge from the songs at every listen. She will be performing this material for the first time in New York on March 24th, 2015 at Mercury Lounge. Needless to say, I already have my ticket.

15. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness - Olsen arrives at the forefront of songwriting and singing with this top-flight album.

16. John Luther Adams: Become Ocean - While Adams' gorgeous Pulitzer Prize winning tone poem may not solve climate change, it will certainly change your own personal atmosphere. Smashing recording and performance from Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony.

17. Scott Walker & Sunn O))): Soused - In what may be the most surprising collaboration since Lou Reed met Metallica in Lulu's abbatoir, Soused found Walker joining forces with drone metal avatars Sunn O))) (named for the logo of an American amplifier company) to produce possibly his least obscure work since the last Walker Brothers album. Hearing his magnicent tenor ring out with a line from Oh Shenandoah ("Across the wide Missouri") to start the album is a thrill and when the guitars start wailing and slashing it sounds uncannily right. Lyrically, Walker is up to his usual tricks, exploring the dark side of American popular culture (Brando: "I took it for Wild One. And then for my sin"), the darker side of history's anti-heroes (Herod 2014) and other pitch-black subject matter. There's a strong feeling of theater to the whole enterprise and Soused demands to be listened to in one sitting. It's a real experience and one that seems to have given new purpose to Sunn O))), who have been plowing their singular furrow for nearly 20 years without really getting anywhere. Walker has harnessed them brilliantly, drawing on their mastery of guitars and textures to add weight to his soundscapes. Soused connects like a haymaker - be forewarned.

18. Golden Retriever: Seer - One could almost imagine Scott Walker finding a place for his frightening ruminations in the sounds created by Matt Carlson (modular synth) and Jonathan Sielaff (bass clarinet) as Golden Retriever, except their music is somehow more friendly and inviting than what he typically goes for. They make the most of their limited palette, drawing on sources both ambient (Harold Budd comes to mind) and avant garde (they cite Alvin Lucier) to create long, spacious environments for the listener to explore. There's a lot of color and detail to Golden Retriever's music and the feeling of excited collaboration between Carlson and Sielaff is palpable - and contagious. Don't let Seer fly under your radar. 

19. Jonny Greenwood: Inherent Vice OST - While his Radiohead bandmate Thom Yorke gets more ink for his thoughts on the business of music delivery than for his mostly terrific new album, Greenwood quietly goes about his business. He's already had quite a year, what with the beautiful recording of a symphonic suite from his There Will Be Blood soundtrack released on Deutsche Grammophon (as for Bryce Dessner's music on the same album, the less said the better), and his fluid, concentrated performance of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint included on that composer's record of Radiohead-inspired music. Now we get his latest soundtrack for a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon novel. While I confess to not being a fan of Anderson, he's done a great service by repeatedly giving the reins to Greenwood and enabling him to create some of the most striking movie scores of our era with There Will Be Blood, The Master and now Inherent Vice. 

Greenwood seems to see the sound-world of a movie as a whole, composing his own pieces and also selecting other music as an incredibly apropos supplement. For Norwegian Wood, he sequenced songs by Can in between his symphonic cues, creating a unique tapestry. Inherent Vice also contains a Can song - their classic Vitamin C is the second track, after Greenwood's lush, pensive theme - but there are also songs by Minnie Riperton, Neil Young, surf-rockers The Marketts and soul singer Chuck Jackson, among others, for his most varied soundtrack yet. There's even a curio for Radiohead fans: a version of Spooks, which they've played live but never recorded. As finished here, it features Greenwood alongside two members of the now-defunct Supergrass and a spoken narration. It's terrific but "not really rh," as Greenwood himself Tweeted.

In some of Greenwood's own compositions, there are echoes of Bernard Herrmann's brilliant score for The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, with delicate woodwinds and strings intertwining to explore psychological depths perhaps ignored by the characters. His guitar comes out on Spooks and couple of other tracks that have a band feel, but for the most part he stays away from his day job. The Markett's track is a bit goofy and Kyu Sakamoto's Sukiyaki is kind of irritating, but the Minnie Riperton song is surprisingly great, and the important thing is the totality of the listening experience. From what I've heard, some who excessively laud Anderson are finding Inherent Vice to be quite a bit less an the sum of its parts. Not so for Greenwood's music. I'll probably save the $12 bucks and stick with the movie he's already created in my mind. You shouldn't form any opinions on Greenwood's work based on the movie's trailer, which features exactly none of his contributions. The soundtrack to Inherent Vice will be released on December 15th. 

20. Perfect Pussy: Say Yes To Love - I admit to a secret fascination with online comments related to this young band from Syracuse. Invariably someone will say, with absolute authority: "This just isn't good noise or hardcore," which usually makes me think: "As if they care." While they do draw on those traditions, they have no need to fit into any genre or subculture or follow anybody's rules. Their debut album is short, serrated and sweet, like their performances. A recent concert from Paris shows they can rule a big stage as effectively as a small one.

A burst of blistering noise - that's a good way to end a Top 20, clearing the decks for 2015. However, there's still more 2014 to come: next time I'll go back to the beginning and deliver numbers 1-10. After that will come The Best of the Rest of 14 and Out of the Past (reissues and other older sounds).

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Power Pop To The People

Alex Chilton holds on in Memphis

Let's get a few things out of the way. Like many people, I discovered Big Star retroactively, following the trail of breadcrumbs left by The Replacements. I'd heard of them, of course, often mentioned in the same breath as the Flamin' Groovies, but never heard a note - it wasn't easy to find their stuff for quite some time. When I did hear it, I connected with it immediately. Remembering Alex Chilton's voice on The Letter by The Boxtops, I kept thinking, "This is that guy?" Number One Record and Radio City are both classic albums and Third (Sister Lovers) is pretty fantastic, although fragmented. I also like a lot of I Am The Cosmos, the posthumously released album by Chris Bell, who was Chilton's main foil in the early days of Big Star.

On the other hand, I have often been confounded by Alex Chilton's post-Big Star career. While there are a few good songs (Like Flies On Sherbet, Bangkok), much of it is so shambolic or wrong-headed as to seem not only disrespectful of his fans but of his own talents. He also made a point of disparaging his achievement in Big Star, and the group in general, which bugged me. Nothing he said or played got in the way of my enjoyment, though - Big Star is in the firmament and poisoned arrows from any source can't knock them down.

Although F. Scott Fitzgerald stated that there were no second acts in American lives, Big Star sure proved him wrong when a one-off concert in Columbia, MO in 1993 kick-started a revival of the band that lasted until Chilton's death in 2010. An album of the concert was released that same year and was a delightful surprise. Featuring Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens along with keepers-of-the-flame Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies on guitar and bass, it was a spirited and short set of well-chosen Big Star songs plus two covers. While there are some tentative moments (Stringfellow calls it a "delightfully fragile show"), there are a lot of fine details as well and in no way did it shame the legacy of the group. I listened to it quite a bit at the time and still put it on from time to time. I especially liked that they covered Baby Strange, one of my favorite T. Rex B-sides - it's always good to find a kindred spirit.

Part of the joy of Columbia was the simple thrill of hearing these great songs take shape in front of an audience, after so many years of hearing the studio versions. In 2009, we were afforded an even more spectacular opportunity to do so, with the release of the stunning Keep An Eye On The Sky box set, which included a complete recording of a 1973 concert at Lafayette's Music Room in Memphis. This is a trio version of the band, with Chilton and Stephens joined by Andy Hummel on bass. It sounds like there are about 10 people in the audience but the band is on fire, with Chilton ripping off leads, chords and complex figures, while Hummel holds down the anchor and Stephens drives the bus, heavy on the ride cymbal. Chilton is in fine voice, too, able to handle the range from soulful to raucous. They were already performing Baby Strange back then, as well as Todd Rundgren's silly Slut, which reappeared in 1993. They nodded to a third hero by including Hot Burrito #2 off the first album by The Flying Burrito Brothers.

There were also earlier releases of live material from 1974, with Chilton showing all too clearly the ravages of the lifestyle that is well-represented on the third album, but between Columbia and Lafayette you have a nice representation of Big Star on stage. Turns out there was more in the vaults, however, and not just audio but film of a complete show from 1994, now seeing the light of day on Omnivore Recordings under the name Live In Memphis. They played in front of family and friends (including Chris Bell's parents) at the New Daisy in what was apparently a warmly received homecoming. 

I admit to being slightIy skeptical of this whole enterprise and when I read that Chilton's former bodyguard (there's a tale) had shot the footage my doubts increased. It seems I needn't have worried. While I haven't seen the whole film, the clip of The Ballad Of El Goodo is beautifully shot, with multiple cameras, and nicely edited as well. In fact, watching this one song has me pretty convinced that this the ideal way to experience Live In Memphis. Watching Chilton's face, still boyish but a bit more lived in, as he puts his all into the song's imprecations to "hold on" is a window into both where the song came from and what it meant to him that night in Memphis after all he had been through. Based on that one song, I am more than eager to see the full thing, which is after all the only professionally made document of a complete concert by Big Star in any form.

That's not to say that the music on its own is to be avoided. At this point, the Posie-fied version of Big Star had played quite a bit in the wake of the 1993 concert, including shows in Tokyo and London, and had gelled more in the process. The set is longer than a year earlier, and looser, with everyone having a lot of fun, bantering with each other and the audience. The uptempo songs drive harder, with a sense of abandon that is very engaging. Looser also means sloppier, with Chilton up to some of his old tricks, entering verses and choruses off the beat and practically daring Auer and Stringfellow to keep up with his off-kilter guitar. 

There are more covers, including 35 seconds of Springsteen's Fire and an ill-advised "playful" take on Girl From Ipanema, which overstays its welcome even at under two minutes. Still, that's really the only cringe-worthy moment. The sound is good enough, although I go back and forth about whether dialing down the drums would be helpful or if their big sound adds to the live feel. Overall, Live In Memphis will be a balm to the ears and especially the eyes of fans of the band and Chilton. Kudos to the team at Omnivore for so lovingly rescuing this material from obscurity. 

Big Star had many descendants in addition to The Replacements, most famously and productively the great Wilco. Jellyfish, the early 90's group helmed by Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. and Jason Falkner (both now strutting their stuff in Beck's astonishing road band), is sometimes included in that cadre. While that power pop sound is definitely in their DNA, they probably take as much from The Monkees, Harry Nilsson, Cheap Trick and Paul McCartney's solo work. Now Omnivore (busy, much?) has prepared reissues of both Jellyfish albums in expanded editions, each featuring a wealth of bonus tracks - demos, live takes, one-offs - to come out on January 20th, 2015.

I never really took to Jellyfish and it's been at least a decade since I listened to Bellybutton. My impression is still basically the same, that here is a group of extremely talented craftsmen with a pretty broad knowledge of music doing exactly what they want to do. It's just not for me. Part of it is the overly brittle sound they chose for their music - I would just like a little more warmth and sense of interaction between the players. But in the end, my opinion doesn't matter much. Jellyfish has their fans and they will be over the moon with Omnivore's typically excellent archival work.

The first disc of the Bellybutton set includes the original album plus ten live cuts from three venues they hit while touring the album. They sound sleek on four songs from the Roxy, charming at the Hard Rock in San Francisco (performing McCartney's Jet, Falkner offers "That's all we know!" as the song ends), and positively storming on the big stage of Wembley arena in London. The second disc is all demos, nine from Bellybutton, one from the second album, five that were never finished, and a cover of Donovan's Season Of The Witch. All of this material will be available as a separate digital download called The Bellybutton Demos. 

For demos, most of these songs are nearly fully realized, with multiple instruments and a modicum of production. These aren't your "bash it out on an acoustic just to get the song on tape" kind of early takes, so they don't provide all that much insight into their writing process, except to point out that working in the studio was an essential part of it. Of the unreleased songs, Queen Of The U.S.A. had serious potential - all they would need to do is hack out the silly sound effects from the bridge and this thing could've been a hit. Always Be My Girl is tuneful and fast-paced - with a different drum approach, it could have been a With The Beatles outtake. Let This Dream Never End is almost pure lite-FM R&B, replete with Greg Phillinganes keyboards and Paul Jackson rhythm guitar. Michael Jackson, Elton John, hell, even Whitney Houston might have found success with it. Season Of The Witch is one of the great groove songs of all time, but Jellyfish never quite seem to find their place in it - completists will be thrilled, as they will be with the rest of this definitive reissue.

Since the demise of Jellyfish, Falkner and Manning have always been busy and in 2000 they teamed up with drummer/composer Brian Reitzell (Redd Kross, Air, numerous soundtracks, including Lost In Translation) to form TV Eyes. They made one album in 2006, which found release in Japan only, played three concerts, and promptly moved on. Looking for something different from what Falkner calls "the macho 'alternative' post-grunge fallout," they took inspiration from Gang Of Four and other post-punk bands, as well as early electronica like Kraftwerk, Japan and Gary Numan's Tubeway Army. The broad swaths of guitar also bring to mind the work of Bill Nelson, especially his Red Noise album, which proved old prog-rockers could get angular, too

Now, thanks once more to Omnivore, this material is no longer for collectors only, and it's worth investigating. While none of the songs equal their influences at their best, each one is fully realized and built-out with all number of layered keyboards, processed drums, disengaged vocals and cool sonic touches. Falkner, Manning and Reitzell are all pros in the studio and it shows, with Reitzell showing his hand in an genuinely haunting re-mix of Time's Up, one of the bonus tracks. What's also clear is that their affection for their sources includes a little well-placed amusement - they know Cars is a funny song as well as a great one - and although they steer clear of parody, they're not afraid of a little pastiche. So check out TV Eyes for some 
expertly assembled machine-tooled post-punk paranoia, especially if you don't mind a dash of fun in the recipe.