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Andy Whitman

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  1. Andy Whitman

    Our 2014 lists

    10. The Rails – Fair Warning Richard and Linda Thompson made a half dozen of the best albums I’ve ever heard, featuring searing songwriting, jaw-dropping guitar work, and scintillating harmony singing. But that was 35 or more years ago now, and we’ll never get another one. And that’s why I’ll settle for the Thompson’s daughter Kami singing with her husband James Walbourne. It’s not much of a hardship. Together, Kami and James call themselves The Rails. Kami doesn’t quite have Linda’s breathtaking voice, but she has a good one. James isn’t quite the songwriter or guitarist that Richard is, but he’s not far off, either. And they’ve clearly set out to do what their elders did before them: create a Celtic Rock hybrid that honors its ancient sources and reflects modern sensibilities. They don’t quite pull it off, but it’s close; close enough to call this the best Richard and Linda Thompson album you’ve never heard. 9. St. Paul and the Broken Bones – Half the City An old fashioned Stax/Volt soul revue, complete with horn section, led by a pudgy white boy who wants to be Al Green, and who sounds uncannily like him. Nothing more. Nothing less. That’s enough. 8. Nothing – Guilty of Everything The usual Shoegaze building blocks – the sweet melodies, the whisper-to-a-shriek dynamics, the sonic assault of overamped guitars – are here in abundance on the debut album from Nothing. But that’s the same formula genre pioneers such as My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver, and Ride delivered 25 years ago. What sets this band apart is the decided metal pedigree of the rhythm section. Kyle Kimball, in particular, absolutely pummels his drum kit, effectively punching a hole right through the sonic gauze. This is as muscular and hard-edged as Shoegaze gets. 7. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead A seamless blend of jazz, electronic music, and, hip-hop, Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead sounds like Mahavishnu Orchestra, circa 1973, fronted by a bevy of hip-hop stalwarts. Kendrick Lamar is the biggest name here, and on the album’s single “Never Catch Me” he spits out dizzying commentary between the bursts of cosmic machine-gun fire from the band. And this band is really something to hear. Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus) is the producer/sampler/keyboard virtuoso, but the contributions from bassist and vocalist Thundercat, drummer Deantoni Parks, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, and keyboard player Herbie Hancock (yes, that guy) are superb. Those with deep musical memories will catch the samples from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Queen, and Mahavishnu Orchestra too, but the real action is in the interplay between that great band and the hip-hop artists. 6. Sun Kil Moon – Benji Mark Kozelek is an inveterate mopester and weaver of memories when he’s not bragging on his sexual conquests, so it’s not particularly surprising that Benji, his finest album since 2003’s masterful Ghosts of the Great Highway, should concern itself with songs about death, death, death, death, his dick, death, death, death, death, death, memory and loss, and death, respectively. The death and memory and loss songs are the best, and feature Kozelek’s uncanny ability to construct something universally moving from the most personal of sources. On “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same” he hop-scotches across the years, remembering his visceral adolescent reaction to the Led Zeppelin film of the title, beating up a kid in middle school and experiencing remorse, and his strange and inexplicably inappropriate reaction to the news of the death of his grandmother, all the while recognizing that those random, scattered memories are grist for the songwriting mill. No mention of his dick. That’s one of the good ones. 5. Saintseneca – Dark Arc I might be biased. Columbus kids make good, and all that. So I’ll point out that, yes, they’re on a big-time quality record label, Anti- Records, and that the debut album more than holds its own with the likes of label mates Mavis Staples, Merle Haggard, Tom Waits, The Black Keys, Kate Bush, Joe Henry, and Mose Allison. It’s a label for people who know how to write songs, and the Columbus kid, Zac Little, doesn’t disappoint. For the record, I mostly hate the flannel-shirted, bearded wonders who make what passes for indie folk music today. But I like this band, and the songwriting is the difference. The crazed campfire singalong/stompalong “Blood Bath” gets my vote for Best Song of 2014. 4. Allo Darlin’ – We Come From the Same Place The third album from London-by-way-of-Australia twee popsters Allo Darlin’ builds on the strengths of the band’s previous work. Lead vocalist, songwriter and ukulele strummer Elizabeth Morris still writes disarmingly sweet but off-kilter songs of romance found and lost (here she rhymes, impossibly and charmingly, “bar” and “Jaegermeister”), and guitarist and sometime vocalist Paul Rains still chimes in, quite literally, with a technique clearly inspired by Roger McGuinn and The Byrds. One might conclude from that pairing that Allo Darlin’ make pop music for nerdy Boomers, and one might be right. But there’s some real bite to the guitars this time out, and Morris continues to dazzle as the sweet girl next door who has memorized the thesaurus. As dad rock goes, this is strange and delightful. 3. Jolie Holland – Wine Dark Sea Jolie Holland’s mushmouthed vocals will always be offputting to some. I’ll gladly live with them. On Wine Dark Sea, her sixth album, Holland sounds both deeply connected to the insistent heartbeat of traditional American song and completely untethered. Jolie is, at heart, a roots artist, and these songs have sturdy blues and folk sinews. But the guitars squeal and squall like some Sonny Sharrock experiment in a Manhattan loft, all free jazz and reverb run amok, and Jolie is very much up to the sonic challenge. She has Billie Holiday’s lazy drawl and ability to luxuriate between the notes. She has Robert Plant’s feral Led Zeppelin howl. I think she’s a hell of a singer, and this is her finest effort, a big, unconventional, stomping bruiser of an album. 2. The Number Ones – The Number Ones Ten songs in 20 minutes is what we’ve got here, a bunch of short little punk pop bursts that recall the spirit of ’77. In this case, the spirit of ’77 evokes not so much The Sex Pistols or The Clash, but the tuneful cheekiness of The Undertones, like-minded Irish yobs who couldn’t get the girl but who were too good natured to sound particularly petulant or menacing about it. These kids can barely play their instruments, they don’t know any better than to write straightforward melodic songs with endless hooks, and they sing as if their lives depend on connecting with that cute chick in the front row. That’s what makes them great. 1. Joe Henry – Invisible Hour Yes, I’m going to quote myself. It’s a long quote. Sorry. Joe Henry doesn’t write love songs, although love suffuses almost every syllable he sings. He writes marriage songs, which are neither dewy-eyed odes to blossoming romance nor tell-all dispatches of domestic warfare, but rather something far more sly and wise and sweet. Forget the silly arguments about squeezing the tube of toothpaste from the top or bottom. Henry knows that the real work of marriage, and the real joy, involves the collision of two independent, willful, frequently selfish human beings, thrown together and destined to sort it out over the course of years and decades. What happens there—that strange and seductive alchemy that transforms and ennobles human lives, at least in the best of circumstances—cannot be summarized objectively, and perhaps can best be approached through the realm of gritty poetry, in words that bear witness to the scars, but still soar. That’s what Joe Henry has delivered on Invisible Hour, his 13th album. And make no mistake, Joe Henry is a poet. He plays guitar (and guitar only; no piano on this album) and sings, and does his song-and-dance man shuffle, but more than any other contemporary songwriter, his words are luminous and mysterious, shimmering with the possibility of transcendence. Unlike Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks or Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky, poetic confessional singer/songwriter albums with which Invisible Hour can be legitimately compared in terms of overriding lyrical themes and extraordinary musical quality, this one doesn’t end in despair and heartbreak. But the emotional stakes are just as high, the psychic wounds are just as great, and the 11 songs here are just as vulnerable and raw. “Our very blood tastes like honey,” Henry sings on the opening track “Sparrow,” and that arresting image, both alarming and life-affirming, sets the tone for the tales that follow. Invisible Hour is a folk record—surprisingly so, given Henry’s penchant for the lounge noir blurring of genres that has populated his catalog in the 2000s. Perhaps sensing the need for a different musical treatment given the intensely personal nature of these songs, Henry has stripped the accompaniment back to the bare folk basics: acoustic guitars, mandola and mandocello (with frequent collaborator Greg Leisz adding the filigree) and a restrained but empathic rhythm section. The instrumental star here, however, is Henry’s son Levon, who provides the equivalent of an entire horn section via multi-tracked clarinets and saxophones, and who works entirely outside normal jazz and R&B conventions. His conjuring of a sad, almost funereal mariachi band on the winding ballad “Sign” is a particular highlight. But the focus here is on Joe Henry and the songs. “I want nothing more than for you to hear me now,” he sings on the lovely “Plainspeak,” and Ryan Freeland’s intimate, closely-miked production is intended to facilitate exactly that. And what we hear, in typical Joe Henry fashion, is the sound of mystery. So much for plainspeak. Although this is an album about marriage, it approaches its subject obliquely, circuitously, and Henry is far too much of a mystic and lyrical maverick to present any of this in a straightforwardly narrative fashion. The songs are full of strange portents: the end of days, the shadow of a hand on a mountainside, ghosts hanging in trees, the dead wandering the land. Time—its relentless passage, its irretrievable nature, its ability to heal and reconcile—haunts these songs in almost every line. The same imagery appears, slightly reconfigured, from song to song. And even when the songs borrow from standard singer/songwriter fare, with verses strung together into something resembling a story, as in the nine-minute epic “Sign,” what we encounter is something more like Dylan’s mid-‘60s surrealism and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical fantasy than journalistic reporting. In short, these songs demand not only that you pay close attention to them, but also that you wrestle with them, live with them for a while, let their disquieting images connect in new and unexpected ways. And when the straightforwardness comes, the effect can be startling. I want you to hear me now, indeed: I take all this to be holy
 If futile, uncertain and dire
 Our union of fracture, our dread everlasting
 This beautiful, desperate desire That’s from “Grave Angels,” which serves as an opening salvo for the marital ruminations that follow. And that’s as clear as it gets. What remains are the glimpses of hope, the hard-won victories when victory itself seemed like a phantasmal fever dream, the shaky but growing recognition that the scars are badges of glory. That, and 11 impossibly beautiful songs. Invisible Hour is poetic singer/songwriter fare at its best, and this is Joe Henry’s masterpiece. Honorable Mention Alcest – Shelter Allah-La’s – Worship the Sun Alvvays – Alvvays Angel Olson – Burn Your Fire For No Witness Beck – Morning Phase Ben Frost – A U R O R A Benjamin Booker – Benjamin Booker Bing & Ruth – Tomorrow Was the Golden Age The Delines – Colfax Doug Seegers – Going Down to the River Elbow – The Takeoff and Landing Gold-Bears – Dalliance Hiss Golden Messenger – Lateness of Dancers The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace Is There Jackson Browne – Standing in the Breach John Fullbright – Songs Jose James – While You Were Sleeping Imogen Heap – Sparks Kevin Morby – Still Life King Creosote – From Scotland, With Love Lecrae – Anomaly Lucinda Williams – Where the Spirit Meets the Bone Luluc – Passerby Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else Mary Gauthier – Trouble and Love Mirel Wagner –When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day The New Mendicants – Into the Lime Polar Bear – In Each and Every One Rosanne Cash – The River & the Thread Sharon Van Etten – Are We There Spoon – They Want My Soul St. Vincent – St. Vincent Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music Temples – Sun Structures Tord Gustavesen Quartet – Extended Circle Tune-Yards – Nikki Nack Ty Segall – Manipulator Vashti Bunyan – Heartleap The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream Wilko Johnson – Going Back Home Wussy – Attica! Best Boxed Sets Bob Dylan and The Band – The Complete Basement Tapes Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young – CSNY 1974 Most Disappointing Releases Note: This implies that I thought I might like it, but I didn’t, which is why you won’t see any pop divas here) Augustines - Augustines Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes (yeah, but …) The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt
  2. I like this album. I suspect it's just a detour in Bird's career, but it's a pleasant one, and I like both the simplicity of the musical arrangements and the strangeness of Brett and Rennie Sparks' songs. It's a weird folk album. Nothing wrong with that.
  3. Me neither, and despite some threads here devoted to Big Star and the efforts of Michael Stipe et al. to bring Chilton wider attention, I still knew nothing about him or the band when, late last year, I gave my screener of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me a spin. I didn't last long. I think I'll try again tonight, having read a review of the new book A Man Called Destruction in today's Washington Post. The review concludes: Here’s hoping “A Man Called Destruction” can join the 2012 documentary “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” to restore Chilton to his rightful place in the rock-and-roll firmament. I should do my part, shouldn't I? I just watched "Big Star:Nothing Can Hurt Me" last week. I'm still not fond of the third album, which everybody else hears as some sort of shambolic, depressive masterpiece. It just sounds shambolic and depressive to me. But the first two albums, the power pop albums, still sound great. Chris Bell was the secret sauce. It wasn't the same without him.
  4. Well, I love you guys, but I can't stand this album. It's a collection of old, familiar songs that have already been recorded hundreds of times, and in better fashion, by other people. And it's recorded on old technology, so it sounds horrible. Intentionally. This from the guy who keeps telling us that the problem with digital audio quality is the fidelity. The solution? Make it sound like a 1927 field recording, apparently. Neil Young, quite a card. He's going to do what he's going to do, and history has shown that he doesn't really give a rip what other people think. Okay. But this one ranks near the top of the many head-scratchers he's released over the years, and that's not a list you want to be on, in my opinion.
  5. Here are some thoughts on this album I wrote on my blog: Mark Kozelek (under his Sun Kil Moon moniker) has released a new album called “Benji.” Along with Joe Henry’s “Invisible Hour” - a very different kind of musical experience - it’s the album I’ve come back to most frequently during the first few months of this year. I dearly love it. It also irritates the hell out of me. In other words, it’s a Mark Kozelek album. Let it be noted that Kozelek can’t follow a narrative worth a damn. His songs start off in Ohio and end up in New Mexico, and he doesn’t necessarily connect the dots in between. He starts to tell the tale of a young, mentally handicapped girl in Akron but winds up, in his convoluted, inscrutable fashion, reminiscing about his grandmother in L.A. He’s also inordinately fond of his dick, and he’ll tell you stories about its adventures, and name the names attached to the female genitalia with which the dick has cavorted from coast to coast, and on several other continents. There are aspects about this man that I find thoroughly distasteful. Did I say that I really like this album? Because I do, very much. And that should tell you something about just how astounding are the positive qualities. Kozelek’s reedy tenor and deft folk fingerpicking recall a flashier Neil Young, and I’ll gladly live with a flashier Neil Young. But it is his songwriting – yes, as convoluted and self-obsessed as it is – that truly sets him apart. What Kozelek does especially well – better than any other contemporary songwriter, in fact – is plumb the melancholy depths of memory and loss; lost relationships, lost childhood, lost innocence, lost life. He focuses on lost life particularly on this latest album, which is a nearly unremitting chronicle of quick, unexpected death, slow, lingering death, plane rides to funeral services, the funeral services themselves, the post-funeral meals, and the shattered lives of surviving loved ones and relatives. No less than seven of these eleven songs deal directly with death and funerals. Three deal with worrying about death; one’s own, and one’s parents. The eleventh is about a dick. Welcome to the life of Mark Kozelek. I suppose it’s also worth noting that sometimes life – complex, convoluted, shocking and surprising life – can’t follow a narrative worth a damn either, and perhaps Kozelek simply travels the meandering stream to see where it leads him. Witness what he does on a long, winding 11-minute song called “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same.” In the song, Kozelek the teenager goes to a mall in Ohio, watches the Led Zeppelin film named in the title, and is caught up in the wonder of the music. That, in turn, calls to mind the memory of friends and classmates who have died tragically young, and the melancholy that has followed him all his life. Those memories then conjure the memory of the death of his grandmother. That news inexplicably caused him to laugh, and he is still haunted by the incongruity of that response. That incongruity triggers yet another one; the memory of being a non-aggressive kid who was baited into a senseless fight on an elementary school playground; of feeling remorse, of wanting to apologize to that poor, unfortunate, beaten kid with the broken glasses, wherever he might be. And that memory in turn causes him to return to the present day, to recognize the storehouse of melancholic memories that has contributed greatly to his musical career, and to look forward to a visit with the man who first signed him to a recording contract, to shake his hand, to simply thank him for the assistance he has rendered. It’s an utterly melancholy song suffused with regret and sweetness. I would venture to say that there is not – could not possibly be – another song like that one. On one level it is convoluted, meandering, nonsensical, full of non-sequiturs. But this is the way memory works, is it not? And Kozelek has simply captured the neural jumps that take place, often more or less instantaneously, and translated them to a long folk song. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. And he does it over and over again on “Benji,” just as he has done it over and over again throughout a career that now stretches back more than two decades. He’s Marcel Proust with an acoustic guitar. He is unstuck in time, awash in memory and loss, and he is pulling at the disparate strands to weave something lovely. He’s maddening, and he’s maddeningly gifted. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this album. But I would certainly recommend it.
  6. The Dire Straits comparison occurred to me, too. I agree that it's a fine album. The lo-fi aesthetic gets to me a bit. This guy is a fine songwriter and guitarist, but it's a bit hard to hear at times. Still, I'm impressed.
  7. Sad for many reasons-- not the least of which is that I honestly don't know of any other publication that engages with both CCM and more mainstream pop, rock, country, and folk music with the seriousness that CT did, for a time. I appreciated CT's music coverage, and wrote my share of articles and reviews for the magazine, but it was an uneasy alliance with the audience. Every time a review of a non-CCM album showed up on the site or in the magazine, the outraged comments would come in like clockwork. "I thought this was a Christian magazine." "How is Jesus honored by Artist <x>? I heard Artist <x> cusses." Etc. It just got old. That's not a reflection on the staff, or on Mark Moring, in particular, who was always supportive. Christians are not going to always agree on everything, and they're certainly not going to agree about musical taste. Fine. But these disagreements were of such a fundamental (no pun intended) nature that it often seemed hopeless and pointless; people speaking different languages, and talking past each other. At least that was my take. I appreciate that CT fought the good fight, and that Alyssa continues to fight the good fight on the movies front. Do I miss the music coverage? Not that much.
  8. The debut album was tremendous; an arena shaker that also featured pensive, thoughtful lyrics and genuine heartbreak. And yes, a raspy, soulful lead singer. I heard some of the new songs live a few months ago, when I saw Augustines open for Frightened Rabbit. I liked what I heard, and I can't wait to hear more. Thanks for the heads-up.
  9. I feel like we covered that topic fairly recently in regards to... Bob Dylan... Plagiarist? I maintain that Bruce Springsteen's Pete Seeger tribute album is the only Springsteen album I find fully satisfying. It's the one in which production doesn't get in the way, the one in which I feel like Springsteen has tapped into the strongest material, and the power in the voices and the music and the house in which they recorded it is palpable. I'd be curious, Andy, to know what Seeger recordings you'd call essential. The World of Pete Seeger, from 1974, is a good compilation of Pete's best-known songs and best-known covers. I agree with Josh that Pete Seeger was probably best in a live setting, but I'd still recommend the compilation as a good first purchase. As for the politics, they're part and parcel of who Pete Seeger was. If one doesn't like his political views then it's probably best to skip his music, because there's nowhere in a vast 60+ year catalog where you'll escape them, including the numerous children's albums he recorded. Like Woody Guthrie, with whom he can be justly compared, Pete Seeger was a dyed-in-the-wool leftist. It got him in a lot of trouble. it was also what motivated his entire life, including the songs he wrote and which songs he covered. One may not agree with his single-minded focus, but it never wavered.
  10. It would be a shame if this kind of grousing was the latest word on Pete Seeger. Here's Pete Seeger in 200 words: "Seeger's career was marked by controversy. From the start, he aspired to use folk music to promote his left-wing political views, and in times of national turmoil that brought him into direct confrontation with the U.S. government, corporate interests, and people who did not share his beliefs. These conflicts shaped his career. At times, his exposure through the mass media was extremely limited, and he was even threatened with imprisonment. That he accepted such challenges was a measure of his commitment to his ideals, which completely superseded any interest in being a conventional entertainer. Indeed, he scorned the trappings of mainstream popular success; his goals were to inspire and instruct, not merely to entertain. So, it might be most accurate to say of Pete Seeger that he devoted his life to such causes as building unions, ending wars, supporting the rights of the oppressed, and saving the environment, and that his means of expressing that devotion took the form of singing and playing on the banjo and the guitar old songs that had been revised to address those causes." But the whole article, from my friends at All Music Guide, is worth reading. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/pete-seeger-mn0000266160/biography Cynicism is fashionable these days, so it's hard for many people to fathom the impact that music -- simple little ditties -- had on changing the world. Pete Seeger's music changed the world. No kidding, it did. That's a big statement, but Pete wrote big songs, and there were people who cared, and cared deeply, and who carried those songs with them to Civil Rights rallies and campus sit-ins and all over the world where they saw injustice. The world is a more just place because Pete Seeger lived. Of how many people can that statement be made? He was huge. His loss is huge. If I had a bell, I'd ring it in the morning. Other than that, he might have ripped off a South African musician.
  11. Here are my favorite 10, in no particular order other than alphabetical, because the idea of ranking the big band music of Darcy James Argue ahead of or behind the honky tonk stomp of Vince Gill and Paul Franklin is frankly ludicrous. And my favorite album of 2013 is not listed alphabetically because it’s the best. So there. What are your favorites? Every album here has a couple flaws. I heard no 5-star efforts this year, which is a little unusual. But, as is the case every year, there were many albums that thrilled me, moved me, made me sad, made me want to jump on the couch cushions and play air guitar (not recommended; just ask my wife), and made me very, very thankful. Here are the albums that I loved the most. Aoife O’Donovan – Fossils O’Donovan is the lead singer/songwriter for Crooked Still, an alt-country band that has impressed me up to this point only with their wild inconsistency. But on her first solo album, she blurs the lines between Americana and Celtic music, the accordions nestled up against the pedal steel, and delivers ten finely observed and beautifully sung ruminations on love and loss. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Brooklyn Babylon Working with an 18-piece big band, Argue delivers another slab of steampunk jazz. Or something. Good luck finding a label. There’s an electric guitarist here who thinks he’s Jimi Hendrix. There are tight horn arrangements here that yield to avant-garde squonking and squealing;. There are snatches of old Croatian folk songs, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Count Basie on Saturn. Whatever this is, it’s bracing, startling, and often lovely. Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare Take every early ‘70s album you’ve ever heard and put it in the musical blender. Wilson’s lyrical approach is primarily drawn from the introspective, stoned navel gazing of 1971 Laurel Canyon. Think Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. But sonically, this album features Pink Floyd spacerock, winding, jagged Neil Young/Crazy Horse guitar workouts, epic ELO pop orchestration, sophisticated Steely Dan jazz rock. It’s a sprawling mess; nearly 80 minutes of “Look ma, I can compress the ‘70s into one album.” The astonishing fact is that he does it. Mikal Cronin – MCII The garage rocker cleans up the scuzz, discovers production, melody, hooks, and choruses, and delivers the best power pop album of 2013. There’s still a delightful garage rock rawness about the proceedings, but Cronin makes the most of his three chords and ends up with that rarest of albums; 38 minutes of infectious rock ‘n roll without a second wasted. North Mississippi Allstars – World Boogie is Coming Delta blues and southern rock ‘n roll. That’s it. There will be the inevitable comparisons to the White Stripes and the Black Keys because of the minimalist lineup, and because Luther Dickinson is a genuine guitar hero, but in truth these tunes owe more to R.L. Burnside and Muddy Waters than the Rust Belt boys. This stuff just roars and stomps. If you’re looking for subtlety, go elsewhere. But, as Sam Phillips (the producer, not the female singer/songwriter) once said, this is where the soul of man never dies. It’s alive and well in North Mississippi. Over the Rhine – Meet Me at the Edge of the World Place gets short shrift in most contemporary music. The usual pop hit could emanate from anywhere. But imagine the music of The Beach Boys without southern California, or the music of Bruce Springsteen without the Jersey Shore. Place, for husband-and-wife team Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, is a farm in southwest Ohio, and these lovely songs have dirt under their fingernails. This is incarnational music in the best sense. It’s rooted in time and place. It’s about real people with bodies. The love songs, which are here in force, are earthbound. Nevertheless, they soar. Son Lux – Lanterns Ryan Lott, the restlessly creative spirit behind Son Lux, has always been a musical alchemist, mixing the most seemingly disparate materials together; hip-hop beats and samples from Maria Callas, industrial clanging and what sounds like Rachmaninoff piano sturm und drang. The creative alchemy is still very much in evidence, but “Lanterns,” Lott’s third album, is more rooted in traditional song structures, and “Lost it to Trying” actually sounds like it could be a massive club hit. It’s an impressive pop move for a mad scientist. Superchunk – I Hate Music North Carolina’s bratty punks have now been dragged kicking and screaming into middle age, and they’re facing middle-age problems, including the brutal reminder of the death of friends who are too young to die. They’re still bratty, and their strident but infectious rock ‘n roll is no less raucous, but they’re howling in grief and disbelief. And they’re alarmed that life, impossibly, goes on. The “don’t let go/let go” tug-of-war that dominates opener “Overflows” will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever experienced the sting of death, and the incalculable loss of memories that cannot be fully retained. Vince Gill and Paul Franklin – Bakersfield Ten songs from Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, done straight up Bakersfield honky tonk style. No frills, just miles-deep soulfulness and superb pedal steel. And yes, my favorite album of 2013: Jason Isbell – Southeastern The biographical details surrounding this album – alcoholism, rehab, the implosion of a marriage, cautious hope, new love – are well chronicled. Jason Isbell is too savvy of a writer to dwell in straight-up autobiography, and it’s worth noting that on this album the first-person narrative can’t always be assumed to be about the songwriter. That said, some of these details are too harrowing to come from anyplace other than the deepest, darkest personal experience. This is confessional songwriting at its best, sung by a soulful choirboy, and there isn’t a maudlin note, or a note of self-justification. This is a Portrait of the Asshole as a Young Man. And an artist. That, too.
  12. Which is yet another reason why I wish this discussion wasn't framed in generational terms. Yes, at a very broad and largely inaccurate level, generations have defining characteristics. But I'd rather focus on the issues at hand rather than debating whether Rachel Held Evans is Gen Y or a Millennial or a Fringer. I know that's the way RHE framed it. But I think that's unfortunate, and detracts from the serious points she's made.
  13. Yes. Ironically, it is the Millennials (certainly moreso than the Boomers, whom I rode in with, and who wanted to tear it all down and start over again, circa AD 30 or so) who seem to have more reverence for the past than previous generations. The Christian Millennials I know are all about responsive readings from the Book of Common Prayer (without desiring to be CofE/Episcopal), fixed-hour prayer and the contemplative life (without desiring to be Catholic or Orthodox), social justice (without desiring to be mainline Protestant), the work of the Holy Spirit (without desiring to be Pentecostal), and adherence to the Word of God (without desiring to be Evangelical). They're all about the historic faith. They just happen to mix it up in previously unforeseen and unimagined ways. Actually, it all looks pretty healthy to me. The problem, at least from the perspective of those who approach the Church from long-established models and paradigms, is that the Millennials opt for e) None of the Above. But they borrow liberally (and even conservatively at times) from a, b, c, and d.
  14. Generational labels are a handy, stereotypical way to divide people. I read Rachel Held Evans' Millennial Laundry List above and found myself nodding in agreement, and I'm either one or two generations removed from the Millennials, depending on whether X and Y really count as two, or one. But I'd like to see the same things Rachel Held Evans would like to see. Although I appreciated Evan's article, I've actually found the responses to her article more revelatory. Brett McCracken, a Mllennial, characterizes his colleagues as "today’s #hashtagging, YOLO-oriented, selfie-obsessed generation." If you can't join 'em, insult 'em, I guess. In Christian love, of course. Jake Meador wants to relegate the likes of Evans, Frank Schaeffer, and Matthew Paul Turner, as "outside the Church," even though all of them are membered in Christian churches. Artur Rosman wants to characterize Evans' critique as "accommodating to Americanisms," as if an abhorrence of the culture wars and a desire to be challenged to live lives of holiness originated with the Declaration of Independence. Whatever. Set up those straw men and knock 'em down if it makes you feel better. My only critique of Evans is that it is too easy to pawn this off as a generational catfight. It is not. I'm sure it makes for compelling copy and elicits a lot of clicks, but it's not really accurate. There are many Christians, across multiple generations, who resonate with her words. I want my Church back. You know, the one Jesus founded. Those are intentionally provocative words, just as they were in Evans' article. But some of us -- even Boomers -- are still too selfie-obsessed, and would like to be in a place that teaches us how to die to self, even if we don't know what YOLO means.
  15. Some might argue Electronic Music (insofar as it is a genre) could compete for that title. Baths Bibio Boards of Canada Bonobo Disclosure DJ Koze James Blake Jon Hopkins Atoms for Peace Daft Punk That's a really good batch of albums. If one were fonder of electronic music, one might indeed argue that.
  16. Unimpressed by Nick Cave (I usually like him, but "Push the Sky Away" didn't do much for me). I haven't heard the latest Mavericks album. I love their early albums, but haven't really kept up. And I look forward to hearing the new Mavis album. I'm in love with that woman even when she doesn't sing, and she sings very well.
  17. All Music Guide has weighed in a little early on their mid-year musical roundup. Here's a less systematic take on the same. It's been a particularly superb year for lo-fi, garage rock types. Kurt Vile, Mikal Cronin, Milk Music, Parquet Courts and Thee Oh Sees have all released wonderful albums. Mikal Cronin's album, in fact, is pretty close to perfect. Genre of the Year so far. Except for the bracing skronk of Colin Stetson, the nouveau Big Band of Darcy James Argue, the jaw-dropping guitar stylings of Marc Ribot, and yet another beautiful release from the ever-reliable Wayne Shorter, I haven't heard too much in the jazz world that thrills me. But stay tuned. The alt-country stalwarts have represented well, thanks to a fine duets album from Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, and noteworthy efforts from Jason Isbell and Son Volt. From the amorphous, impossible-to-define world of indie rock I offer you the latest selections from Frightened Rabbit and British Sea Power. That's it. In truth, much of indie rock bores me to tears these days. Charles Bradley and James Hunter have released fine retro soul albums. In the indie-folk category, hats off to The Milk Carton Kids, Laura Marling (surely in the running for Album of the Year), and Patty Griffin. Low, Camera Obscura, and Besnard Lakes have released lovely dream pop albums. These New Puritans made another weird, paranoid, claustrophobic electronic album. I love it. If you like Radiohead and "Kid A," I bet you'd love it too. And from the Old Farts Who Can Do No Wrong category, let's give it up for Richard Thompson, whose album "Electric" is one of his best from a long and distinguished career. Daft Punk will undoubtedly end up at or near the top of all the end-of-year lists, and I like the new album. It's still disco, so I don't love it. But there's a ton of interesting, creative music there, something I thought I would never write about a disco album, and I do like it. Albums That Everybody Else Loves That I Don't: The National, Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, any albums where energetic folkies chant and count. And Kanye West released a new album. So that happened.
  18. I think it's a superb album. Here's what I wrote a few days ago. My apologies for the crassness, but for what it's worth, the expressions here are fairly tame given what you'll hear on "Southeastern." Pop music is full of disposable songs and albums meant to do little more than provide an entertaining escape that ranges from three minutes to an hour. There are exceptions, of course, and I could list a passel of songwriters who strive for something deeper. You probably could too. But on rare occasions -- perhaps a few times per year -- an album emerges where an artist bares his soul, exposes the raw and bloody stuff of doubt and failure and general fuck-upedness. Think Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks," Van Morrison speeding the night away in an all-night restaurant in "Snow in San Anselmo," Joni Mitchell's confessional poetics on "Blue" or "Hejira." So here is one of those albums, "Southeastern" by former Drive-By-Trucker Jason Isbell, just out today. Isbell delivers these songs in a soulful Alabama drawl, and he sings about downing enough whisky to drown every significant relationship in his life, and then following that up with mouthwash when all the alcohol was gone. He's just crawling out from beneath the relational rubble here, and there are small, cautious signs of hope, but there's not a false note anywhere in these eleven songs. Only regret, sorrow, the ruminations of an asshole who doesn't know how not to be an asshole, the faint hope that maybe, impossibly, things might be a little different tomorrow or next month or next year: I quit talkin' to myself Listenin' to the radio A long, long time ago Damn near strangled by my appetite Ybor City on a Friday night Couldn't even stand upright So high the street girls wouldn't even take my pay They said come see me on a better day They just danced away And I've grown tired of travelin' alone Tired of travelin' alone Tired of travelin' alone Won't you ride with me? It's a brilliant, disturbing, deeply moving little set of tunes, with no source of escape in sight.
  19. I cannot believe that he left out: miasmic naugahyde virulent rutabaga Really not that great of a list.
  20. One answer, and one I increasingly question: There's a link between depression and great writing. Happy people don't write books. Artists feel deeply, they translate those deep feelings into transcendent works of literature, music, whatever, but pain is the grist for all that creativity. And when the pain is unbearable, artists numb it in the usual self-destructive ways. Some of them -- far too many -- medicate themselves to death. Enter Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, D.F. Wallace, etc. That's the standard "suffering artist" narrative. I tend to think that there's a lot of deception and mythologizing at the heart of that narrative, and it's killed a lot of people. I'm not sure that I agree with the author's contention that artists (or authors, specifically) are less prone to buy into the mythologizing these days. Since the death of the great country singer George Jones, I've read plenty of stories that recount Jones' self-destructive tendencies in hushed tones, as if driving the lawn mower eight miles to the liquor store (because his wife hid the car keys) was some sort of zany artistic antic rather than the sad, desperate, pathetic act it really was. I also can't tell you the number of "ascending to the Great Suffering Artist Pantheon" stories I read a couple years ago when R&B singer Amy Winehouse died. Listen, joining the fabled "27 Club" is just sad, evidence of a talented and troubled life cut far too short, nothing more. Unfortunately, that narrative is alive and sick. One thing I deeply believe: artists don't need to be drunk (or stoned, or flying on the drug of their choice) to create great art. To me, the litany of authors that includes Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway et. al. is a list of artists who were great in spite of their addictions, not because of them. I blame it on that damn "suffering artist" narrative, and how easy it is to fall into the rationalizations and denials that accompany it. Fitzgerald was great, but he could have been so much greater. His life is a sad and cautionary tale, and not one to emulate.
  21. To put this in context, I like some Brad Paisley songs, and don't like others. But I will say that "Accidental Racist" is one of the most misguided and awful songs I've heard in some time. Warning: Godwin's Law is about to be invoked. It comes down to whether the Confederate flag, which Brad Paisley wants to defend as a symbol that contains multiple meanings, including good old fashioned southern pride, is in fact such a symbol. I would argue that some symbols carry such heavy cultural baggage that they cannot be viewed neutrally. The swastika is obviously one. Does the Confederate flag rise (or descend) to that level? For many people it clearly does. And I can't say I blame them. The reality is that if Brad Paisley wants to feel justifiably proud of his southern roots, he's welcome to do so, and he can express that in any number of non-offensive ways. He can wear a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt if, as he claims, all he means to say is that he really likes Lynyrd Skynyrd. But wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt is not the way to do that, just as wearing a swastika t-shirt is not a good way to say that you really like Kraftwerk. He can moan about being misunderstood all he wants, and I see that he's taken to the talk show circuit to do so. But when people bring on the misunderstanding by deliberately invoking offensive symbols, it's hard for me to be sympathetic. Of course, all of this probably makes his new album leap off the shelf. But maybe I'm being cynical.
  22. That's consistent with what I've seen and heard. The tattoos are marks of identity, and there are (at least at times) elements of sacred identity wrapped up in that. A friend of mine has grisly images of Tuol Sleng, a Khmer Rouge concentration camp outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, tattooed all over his body. He's founded several orphanages in and around Phnom Penh, and those kids are the descendants of the more than 2,000,000 people who died during the Pol Pot regime. He's living and, perhaps in a very real sense, redeeming his tattoos. Another friend has images of Johnny Cash tattooed all over his body. He sees himself as walking in Johnny's footsteps; a screwed-up, broken human being limping toward the light. He can't sing like Johnny, but you can't have everything. So yes, I get it. I don't want to do it, but I get it.
  23. As the only non-tattooed and/or pierced member of my family, I guess I understand the puzzlement. My pastor is heavily tattooed. Most of the people I know are heavily tattooed. And I just have no interest. I'm also in a church full of wounded artists with shaved heads, piercings, and tattoos all over their bodies. Then there are the men. It's fine. This stuff has long ago stopped being important to me. In my day it was flannel shirts and dreadlocks, and people freaked out about it, and agonized over what future employers would think. Now it's tattoos and piercings. Twenty years from now it will be something else. Mainly I simply wish that I could still grow hair. If I ever did get a tattoo, it would be a tattoo of Rapunzel.
  24. The albums that have grabbed me over the past few weeks: Son Volt - Honky Tonk - The title nails it. Jay Farrar has always held up the country end of the Great Uncle Tupelo Schism of 1993, but this album pushes it to its logical conclusion: eleven original songs that would sound perfect when played over a truckstop jukebox. There's nary an electric guitar in sight, and lilting pedal steel and fiddles carry these typically elliptical tunes. God only knows what they're about (this is Jay Farrar, after all), but the words "honky tonk angels" and "God save the queen of Charleston, West Virginia" are used, which makes me happy. If the Merle Haggard and the Buck Owens of the 1960s mean anything to you, then this album will delight you. Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt - Katie Crutchfield is the lead singer/songwriter for punk band P.S. Eliot, but she uses the pseudonym Waxahatche when she's in pensive singer/songwriter mode. And I like her very much in this mode. She has a no-frills rock trio behind her, and her words pack a punch; bitter and brutal, but also surprisingly nuanced and poetic. She reminds me of early '90s Liz Phair and Throwing Muses. Richard Thompson - Electric - Buddy Miller produces, and he gives Richard the space to stretch out and jam, which he does to spectacular effect. The songs are typically witty, and the influences are all over the map -- Trad Brit folk, Middle Eastern, blues, English music hall, and Renaissance polyphony, to name just five. But look, this is Richard Thompson playing the electric guitar, and nobody does it better.
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