Monday, December 29, 2014

Steve's Top 10 Favorite Records Of The Year

I have been woefully uninspired in terms of writing. I chalk it up to a very busy fall spent with my band tightening up the sound in preparation for our return to the studio. BE PREPARED!

Anyway, I still have been listening to a shit-ton of music and here's my favorite 10 records of the year, irrespective of genre. I will do a metal/heavy-rock list later, because even though the top 5 are all power-poppy and Americana records, I still love my metal. But more importantly, I love great songs, be they heavy or slow or hard or dreamy or toe-tapping or sing-along or shout at the top of your lungs. A great song is a great song.

So the order for these were determined by the following methodology: which record would I want more. So if you were a jerk and started taking records out of my collection and saying "you can't have this" this would be the last 10 getting plucked.

10 - The Autumn Defense - Fifth: A perfect slice of 1970s FM radio. For fans of Wilco and Jackson Browne.

9 - Pallbearer - Foundations of Burden: Super heavy prog meets doom metal with hooks. These guys should be the standard bearer for stoner rock. For fans of pot.

8. Alcest - Shelter: Ethereal French progressive rock. It isn't showy but the melodies and the moods are beautiful. For fans of clouds.

7. Elephant Stone - Three Poisons: Psychedelic India-inspired rock from fine Canadian band. Second year in a row they have made my list. For fans of the George Beatles songs.

6. Opeth - Pale Communion: Opeth have fully embraced their inner-prog-nerd. Old fans might hate the direction but I am glad to see the Cookie Monster vocals are a thing of the past. For fans of Pink Floyd.

5. Sloan - Commonwealth: Canadian power-poppers great double album where each member gets a side. Four distinct song-writers that together are brilliant. For fans of Paul Beatles songs.

4. The Both - s/t: Aimee Mann and Ted Leo join forces for an album of wonderful songs. For fans of harmony.

3. Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways: No Dave Grohl saturation for me this year. I love the record and I love the exuberance he has for rock n roll. If he can turn people back to rock music, the world is a better place for it. For fans...frak it, you know who this is.

2. Jenny Lewis - The Voyager: A lost Stevie Nicks record by a great song-writer. And produced by Ryan Adams, who by the way....

1. Ryan Adams - s/t: The best record he has made since Gold. The record Tom Petty used to make. Glad to have Ryan back.

There it is. That's the list. Find me another list where you'll find The Autumn Defense AND Pallbearer AND Jenny Lewis AND Opeth.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Fantômas and Musical Journeys

I consider James Blackshaw one of the most talented musicians I have ever come across. I have written about him before and the growth he has exhibited, from records featuring just him and his acoustic 12-string to more sonically complicated records involving keys and strings.

His latest record continues that journey forward and see him stepping not only into the role of player but as composer. Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat was recorded live at the Théâtre du Châlet in Paris on Halloween 2013. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Fantômas silent film series, directed by Frenchman Louis Feuillade, composer Yann Tiersen was asked to run the score and accompanying live performances for screenings of the five films. For the final film, Le Faux Magistrat, he asked Blackshaw. And this record is a document of that performance.

It features Blackshaw on his usual nylon string guitar as well as the grand piano. For this he is joined by Charlotte Glasson, Duane Pitre, and Simon Scott playing assortments of guitars, saxophones, flutes, violins, electronics and percussion instruments.

I confess I don't know anything about any of these films or people, except for Blackshaw. His name on the record's spine is what got it into the shopping basket (virtually, of course). But I know interesting music when I hear it. The images on the record hint at a dark, noir-ish endeavor. The music is equally foreboding and lovely. It is broken into 13 pieces and spread over 2 LPs.

For me it is a real listening experience. Four great musicians playing live to a film involves a tremendous amount of skill. Especially when they are rotating from instrument to instrument. It is hard to image that 4 people could pull this off so well. A sinister piano melody is augmented by a dark, almost sleazy saxophone in one of the opening pieces, which will give way to a lovely 12-string figure, soon augmented by a haunting violin and vibraphone. It doesn't deserve to be background music. With so much going on it's worth the listener's effort to apply themselves to the music.

I wouldn't dream of performing music like this, the meager talents I have do no begin to approach what is going on here. I appreciate it immensely. I appreciate the talent and the skill, both natural and that honed by years and years of practice, to make this as wondrous as it is.

Here is a link to Part VIII. For whatever reason the embed won't find it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Autumn (Defense)'s In The Air

The Autumn Defense is a project featuring Patrick Sansone and John Stirratt, both members of Wilco. While Sansone has been part of Wilco for only a few years, Stirratt has been playing bass there since they formed from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo.

The Autumn Defense offers the two an opportunity to share the spotlight, which in Wilco is occupied primarily by Jeff Tweedy. Whereas Wilco started as alt-country, morphed into a sort of American-Radiohead, before settling into a dad-rock niche, TAD delights in the soft rock of the 70s. Singer/songwriter type stuff but lushly produced and orchestrated. I have listened to a few of their albums before but with their latest, called Fifth, they finally and perfectly hit their stride.

I am a big fan of the early records of the band America, and Fifth fits in perfect harmony with those records. Fifth sounds like it stepped out of a time machine, especially the lovely "August Song" which could easily find itself on Homecoming. The harmonies are not as overt as America did in their best days (think "Ventura Highway") but TAD come close. "The Light In Your Eyes" has a particularly great chorus section.

I would not categorize the record as an homage, because that is a bit of a negative descriptor. Fifth is a great record on it's own merits. It's well written and well played and extremely well made. There is nothing searing our loud or heavy here. Fifth is the kind of record you play on cool night on a desert highway with the top down. It doesn't push boundaries but it plays within established ones to great effect. Great songs are great songs. And when they sound this good they make for a very enjoyable listening experiencing.

Here's "August Song"

Monday, June 16, 2014

Beauty & Ruin

Reinvention has it's place. Where many critics will chastise an act for not growing, I am not fond of change for change's sake (nor am I critic, but that is a different matter). I wrote just yesterday that if you find your groove and the songs continue to be high caliber, you should stick to it.

Take Bob Mould. His last record, Silver Age, was one of my favorites from 2012. It was a straight-forward noisy power pop record. It wouldn't be surprising if he changed things up again, exploring the darker side of things Black Sheets of Rain style or even going more electronic. But Bob Mould has other things on his mind. Namely, it's the death of his father and of his own mortality. His new record Beauty & Ruin deals with that life change.

Musicially, "Low Season" starts off as a slow burn, it's deliberate pacing giving way to the punk kick of "Little Glass Pill," which segues into the Sugar-infused "I Don't Know You Anymore." His band of Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster is top shelf.

But the lyrics bite. Take the last of those three tracks: A thousand pieces of my heart/Swept across a weathered floor/And no idea how to start/Solving puzzles from before. Side 1 of the record is labeled "beauty" but beauty is hard to find here. Take side closer "The War:" And all these songs I write for you/They tear me up, it's not hard to do/Listen to my voice/It's the only weapon I kept from the war."

The second side, titled "ruin," is where the light begins to shine. Surrounding the Replacements-esque "Hey Mr. Grey" (complete with a kids don't follow reference), it flickers through songs like "Forgiveness" (and it's Brick-In-The-Wall guitar intro), "Tomorrow Morning" and "Let The Beauty Be" before coming to a close with "Fix It" where Bob sings it's time to fill your heart with love/Fix it, fix it, full enough/Time to fix who you are."

Bob Mould's homosexuality undoubtedly caused whatever friction, whatever distance he and his father had in their relationship. This album sounds like catharsis. It sounds like closure after the fact. I don't know the back story, I don't know anything about what Bob's mindset is here, but the music shows a broken relationship's turmoil. It shows an artist dealing with heavy shit. And for a master songwriter like Bob Mould it's a powerful listening experience.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Most Messed Up

Like all the hipsters, I went through my alt-country phase. If you're unfamiliar, I guess technically it means rock bands that have a country flavor. This was before the Modern Country thing happened, before Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum and Florida Georgia Line and Zac Brown Band decided that playing electric guitars but still singing about being a shitkicker was enough the make you a rocker. Those are country bands that think they are rock bands. And they are barely country artists. They don't belong in the same breath with Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt Waylon Jennings and Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. And that's about all I'll say on that subject, because it ain't for me and I try to be nice here.

One of my favorites out of the alt-country scene were the Old 97s. They hail from Dallas. Dreamy lead singer Rhett Miller went to my rival high school. But I was lame in high school and didn't have a blood vendetta against anybody, so that doesn't really mean much to me. The Old97s followed in the footsteps of my finding Wilco and Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. This was around 1998 and 1999. The first record of theirs I bought was Fight Songs. But the one that really hooked me, and hooked most of the people who love them, was Too Far To Care. It's a great dose of cowpunk. Snarling Strats, great melodies, swinging rhythm section.

The cool thing about them is that they always had an outstanding melodic sense, almost as much power pop and alt-country. Rhett Miller's solo records all lean much more Big Star than Waylon. That had started to rub off on the band a bit, but the last couple of records find them returning to their roots. Their latest is Most Messed Up and it 100% follows that path.

You can tell by the names of the songs: "Let's Get Drunk & Get It On" and "This Is The Ballad" demonstrate the sense of humor they have always had. Opening cut "Longer Than You've Been Alive" sounds like Rhett telling his kids why they have a rock star for a dad. "Wheels Off" sounds like it could have come right off Fight Songs. Every country-ish band needs a song about "Nashville" and they do theirs here.  "Wasted" starts off like lots of Old 97s, acoustic intro but cranking up the amps, singing about not being a square and getting blotto. Bassist Murray Hammond, who is the secret weapon of the band, gets another great track to sing, this time "Ex Of All Your See."

The cowpunk moniker sticks. It's ragged and rough in spots. It's noisy. The back of the record says "Play this album real loud." It's under 40 minutes long, so it starts, kicks ass, says see you next time.

Where bands often find themselves in ruts or bored by what they do, the Old 97s seem to revel in it. They don't break much new ground these days, but they seem to have found their groove. There are good songs in that groove. Growth isn't always needed. Knowing what you are good at is an excellent skill to have.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Deathfest in Charm City

On Sunday my wife and I spent the day in Baltimore at the Maryland Deathfest. I am not usually a big fan of festivals. My attention span has gotten super-low as I get older. But this year I saw that Windhand and Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats were both playing the same day, so I took the plunge and got tickets.

I've written about Uncle Acid before. I've written about Windhand before. Both bands are perfect examples of what is good about the current metal scene. Windhand do their thing slow and heavy. Uncle Acid play Sabbath-inspired melodic rockers that go fast-slow-fast. I was at first chagrined that Windhand was playing first at 1:30, but Uncle Acid wouldn't take the stage until 7:40.

Never fear! The festival remained engaging the entire time. Sure, Jodi and I spent plenty of time hanging out in one of the quieter zones of the festival, but that's just because we had to get out of the sun and off our feet. Across the board it was a great experience. Interesting music, interesting and friendly people, crazy tats, scary tee shirts, awesome vibe.

We arrived about 12:30. Plenty of parking available right by the gates. Security checked IDs and gave us can-drink-wristband, then we had our tickets checked and got a let-us-in-wristband. Jodi had to open her bag and show what was in it. I had to lift up my tee shirt to show I wasn't packing knives or anything troublesome.

We had an hour to kill so we wandered through the copious merchandise area. Lots of vendors, some from metal record labels, were all selling tons of tee shirts, books, bongs, vinyl, CDs, posters, stickers and patches. Every metal band on the planet seemed to have a tee shirt there. I scored a sweet looking Windhand shirt and grabbed a sticker for my guitar case. Jodi enjoyed their set so she went back and got herself a tee-shirt, which she plans on cutting the sleeves off of.

Vinyl-wise, I wound up getting an import 7" from Satan's Satyrs, a local DC band produced by my band's producer Don Zientara. I also got a re-released double LP of ASG's Win Us Over from the Relapse Records table. I could easily have spent a shitload more but for once restraint was in place.

Since we had nearly 8 hours to spend there, we would have to get something to eat. I got a couple hot dogs for lunch, then got some excellent Thai food from one of the vendors. There was plenty of beer and drinks to be had, but I was sensible and stayed with a ton of water, except for one A-Treat soda I couldn't resist.

Soilent Green
But what about the music!?! The bands leaned more brutal than I go for. Windhand and Uncle Acid were definitely the high points for me. Jodi remarked afterwards that Uncle Acid were very different than the other bands. They almost felt out of place. The one that stood out to me was Pseudogod. They are from Russia and look particularly scary, covered in red paint and looking like stand-ins for The Devil's Rejects. We watched Inquisition and then Soilent Green for a while. Both were obviously great at what they did, but it was not quite my thing. I dug it though.

Windhand started the day off perfectly. Jodi asked me if we really would need ear plugs. We were standing in front of one of the speakers and as soon as the drums started going we just grinned at each other. The reverberations seemed to be going right through us. I can only imagine what was happening to our organs. Windhand played 30 minutes and were fantastic. Sorry they only had that short of set. When Jodi got her tee shirt I realized their singer was working the merchandise table. I thanked her for a killer set and shook her hand. Doing the doom slow-heavy thing their songs tend to bleed into one another, but that's part of the charm. They set a mood of heaviness that just knocks me out. Tremendous band.

Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats
Five and a half hours later Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats took the stage. They were worth the wait. This is their first US appearance so it was especially exciting. This is the kind of music a motorcycle gang would dig. Jodi heard one kid having a fit for whatever reason, saying something about this Sabbath cover band not helping. HA! That's an easy descriptor. But they are doing Sabbath better than Sabbath is doing Sabbath these days. They played 45ish minutes and it was outstanding. I fled back to the merchandise table before their set ended in hopes of getting a tee bit I couldn't score one because all they and left were mediums and extra-large. Meh. The music did sound better from way back though. I had ear plugs in for most of the day and while it helped with my tinnitus, it took something away from the sound. Sacrifices for hearing the next week, right?

We left after they played. Candlemass and My Dying Bride still were up but we were both beat and had to drive back from Baltimore. But it was a great day. A very interesting experience. Depending on the band splaying I would go again. I think there would need to be at least two bands I am really into before investing the day again. I was impressed with the overall competence and arrangement of the whole shindig. Kudos to the producers!

Here's a few more sights from the festival!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

All Request Hour: Timber Timbre's Hot Dreams

My friend Joe Apple sent me a Facebook message asking if I would review an album he recommended. I am all up for that. Joe has good taste in music and the record he recommend was one I had not heard of: Hot Dreams by Timber Timbre.

Timber Timbre is a Canadian indie-folk act led by singer/songwriter Taylor Kirk. It's very atmospheric, very elaborate sounding. The record starts off vocally sounding almost like an old Rick Nelson record, but about halfway through the album owner "Beat The Drum Slowly," the reference becomes Richard Hawley, a fine English singer/songwriter who spent some time in Pulp. Hawley is a guy I once said was music to drink Scotch to. This record is very much in that spirit. It reminds me of a less sinister Nick Cave record.

I like the line that opens the title cut "I want to dance, I want to dance, I want to dance with a black woman." Lyrics like that grab the attention. Lyrically it's an interesting record. "Curtains!?" is a great cut; opens with a heavy beat and keyboard with sharp electric chords on the guitar, a quiet break in the middle before ending loudly. "Bring Me Simple Men" reminds me of Urge Overkill covering "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon." The music feels like it could be a soundtrack to a spaghetti western or a Tarantino movie. "Resurrection Drive Part II" is another such cut, but in this one I can see sinister looking hippie-chicks dancing behind a thumping beat and weird violins scraping. Maybe I am just weird.

What I like about it is the mood it creates. It is an incredibly interesting record. And that's good praise. So many records are dull; this one holds the attention. When one song ends here I am eager to hear what is coming next. Thanks, Joe, for the recommendation!

Here is the title cut "Hot Dreams."