Thursday, December 25, 2008

#1

Portishead, Third (Mercury/Island)

There was no reason to expect that Portishead would ever be relevant again. They'd had their heyday, inspired a decade or more of electro-acoustic mood music perfect for shopping or sipping caramel macchiatos (that music's blandness is not Portishead's fault), and promptly faded away. Fait accompli, right? And even if Adrian Utley, Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrow were to reunite, they'd only be banking on past glory (box), right? Well, not so fast, it seems. A decade removed from their last perfomances together, the trio decided they still had something vital to offer, and lo, they were right.

Third is distinct from both of their previous studio albums, as well as their 1998 live release. They have sloughed off all signs of trendiness: gone are the scratches, the spy soundtrack samples, the vague '90s-ness of it all. What remains is the remarkable density of their sound, a deceptively smooth-seeming yet incredibly complex construction of live instrumentation and electronic augmentation. And still present is Beth Gibbons' voice, at once so strong and yet so vulnerable, the wounded ingenue, a singing style seemingly torn from a time now decades past (when I first head Dummy, almost FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, I was convinced the vocals had been ripped from a dusty 78 the producers had found at a rummage sale somewhere). But otherwise, so many references to who Portishead once were have been scrubbed away that Third represents an incredible act of reinvention.

In the past Portishead had, despite its air of longing and desperation, the ability to lull listeners. For all its inventiveness, this was ultimately the calling card of trip hop, the genre Portishead were said to have helped found: the easy tempi were for sipping beverages, for kicking back; for chilling. But Third is less Blue Room in a London club than it is Berlin warehouse-cum-sound-studio. It bristles, crackles, bucks and pushes. It unsettles. First single “Machine Gun,” with its rapidfire drum machine beat, is unapologetic krautrock. “Magic Doors” is backed by a wash of psychedelic tape-splice sound.

Third is so breathtakingly strong, so intricate and dark that it demands a rethink of Portishead's relationship to their earlier work. They were, I think, further ahead than we realized, more innovative and less interested in creating “a sound” than they were in exploring the possibilities of Sound. Dummy and Portishead suggested it, and Third has at last confirmed it: a familiarity with Portishead is essential to understanding the state of the art of music in the first decades of the twenty-first century. For most of us that century began about 7 or 8 years ago (probably it began on September 11, 2001, just as the twentieth century effectively began on June 28, 1914), but for Barrow, Gibbons and Utley, it started nearly a decade earlier, when they began their work together. The question is whether or not they can remain ahead of the curve, and what sort of art will result from their prescience. For the time being, we have Third, and we are fortunate, because Portishead could have easily called it a career ten years ago, when it seemed as though they had nothing left to prove.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

#2

The Walkmen, You and Me (Gigantic)

The buzz of a guitar's reverb in the skin of a drum, the rattle of a kick pedal as secondary percussion, the cracking of Hamilton Leithauser's voice at just the right moments, the rich hum of the organ... these are the subtle aural pleasures of You and Me. The intellectual pleasures are perhaps more acute; like a persistent stitch in your side, the Walkmen are here to remind you that aging isn't easy, and sure as hell isn't pretty, but it's unfailingly poignant, and real to boot. Y+M is an album-length rumination on that abrupt transition when you realize that you don't care if you look your age, because a) you can't be bothered anymore, and b) maybe there's an iota of dignity in not being 26 (or 29) anymore. The Walkmen sound tired, properly tired, and that results in a dropping of affectations. It sounds right, because damn it, who among us isn't weary? One foot in front of the other, we'll get by. They've been listening to Leonoard Cohen – we've got the proof right here – and they sound like it, courting melancholy and mule-headed hopefulness (the impossibly pretty “Canadian Girl”) in equal measure. When an album keeps its hat on for so much of its running length, the outbursts are all the more startling and meaningful. You and Me is a magnificent, well-tailored coat with fraying cuffs. It is elegant and desperate.

And then there's “On the Water,” which is about as perfect a song as I've ever heard. Its muted shuffle-step opening perfectly evokes, as Leithauser sings, “walking down this dirt road, watching at the sky, 'cause it's all I can do.” And when, at about the 2:13 mark, the song erupts like a shower of sparks, your heart does likewise, because you feel in an instant that you have permission to shout, ragged-voiced and pop-veined, every last damn thing that you've held back since things started to appear in your mind's rearview mirror. It is the wedding speech you've always wanted to give, the eulogy you hope to one day deliver, your tie askew, to a room full of gape-faced people. “On the Water” knows that you could have been somebody, and You and Me says you might be yet, but either way you'll have these songs; songs like heirlooms, songs like friends.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

#3

Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)

Every great album needs an equally great creation story, the myth of its genesis, the raw material of its run at immortality. For Emma, Forever Ago passes that test. Specifically, it is the end result of a broken relationship, a disbanded indie-folk outfit, and a period of intense isolation in the snow-driven Wisconsin woods. Justin Vernon, who adopted the Bon Iver moniker as a manglicized version of the French for good winter, endured a run of bad breaks, like many of us do, and reacted in a way that more of us should: he turned it into something of lasting value. Alone in that cabin, he might have made the worst sort of moping bedroom folk, but instead was able to hew something from the ice and wood and solitude that can only be called backwoods soul. His multitracked falsetto shimmers like windowpane frost, etched delicately atop solid rhythms punched out of an acoustic guitar, and spiced with a few horns, some spare drums and the odd electric guitar twang. There are the inevitable Iron & Wine comparisons, and they're valid, but only if you mean the mature Iron & Wine, as on The Shepherd's Dog, where the hushed folk plucking is seasoned with a broader musical palette. For Emma... is a lush, beautiful listen, the sort of album that worms its way into your life so that you find yourself conforming to its rhythms; background listening becomes focused listening. The strength of this record is in its ability to hold your attention, and I think it does that because of its unique genesis. It seems obvious to me that Vernon was writing and recording these songs for himself first and foremost, and that makes us spies on a series of very private moments. When an artist is this naked, the product can't help but prove compelling.

Monday, December 22, 2008

#4

Angles, Every Woman is a Tree (Clean Feed)

For a nation of nine million souls, Sweden has placed a proportionally high number of albums on this list – Love is All, Bengt Berger, and the Raveonettes have already achieved the great distinction of being named TiOM top 25ers. Add alto saxophonist Martin Kuchen and his latest project, Angles, to that number. Every Woman is a Tree is a stark and dark, Matthias Stahl's vibraphones darkening the corners of this roiling live collective improvisation. This is free music as Freedom Music; protest and dissent circa now. Thou ancient, thou free rouses Sweden's national anthem; this sextet certainly bears that second part to heart. The performances are tense and tight, the tunes aren't frothy but have enough head to satisfy. All of it adds up to my favourite free/improv/jazz recording of 2008 (that it came from an artist and group I'd never before heard of makes it all the more pleasing). ((And once again, Clean Feed proves itself one of the most interesting labels out there.))

Sunday, December 21, 2008

#5


Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer (Sub Pop)

Not to repeat myself, but I was prepared to be disappointed by the follow up to the immensely satisfying Apologies to the Queen Mary. Well, I needn’t. At Mount Zoomer is almost completely devoid of a single, lacks the “naive, anthemic bluster” of its predecessor, rocks just a little bit less than …Queen Mary, and comes packaged in one of those shitty paperboard sleeves that’s impossible not to damage the first time you open it. Which is all to say that it’s just as good as Wolf Parade’s debut. I’d stop short of calling it better, because as debuts go, theirs was stupefyingly good. Zoomer is more of an album, though, in that it hangs together all of a piece, and several songs feel as though their primary purpose is to set a tone for the big set pieces (California Dreamer, Kissing the Beehive). All in all, it’s compelling, the rare album demanding a front-to-back listen in a way that’s commendable – weren’t we supposed to have witnessed the death of the album several times over by now? Wolf Parade didn’t make a second installment of their debut, though that would have been an achievement in itself. What they did instead was to grow up a bit and produce an incredible record shorn of the urgency of its antecedent, but one which is nevertheless deeper, more nuanced, and more patient. In short, they followed up one triumph with another, completely different one. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

#6


The Raveonettes, Lust Lust Lust (Vice)

I hereby nominate the Raveonettes to score every future David Lynch project, and while they’re at it, why not go back and provide new music for everything he’s already done? Those would be DVDs worth shelling out for. On Lust…, the ‘nettes seem to have clarified their purpose, shedding much of the bloat that troubled their last long player, and rededicating themselves to their role as recombinant masters of American Kitsch (as is so often the case, it takes outsiders to perfect this shit); promoters of trash as high art. With songs that flare up like magnesium, mechano-drums, robo-Swede vocals and fuzzy, tinny guitar, Lust… is perfect homage to the art of rock & roll self-invention. Harmonized vocals lie like bedrock beneath spiky guitars, and Buddy Holly smiles from the great beyond. So might Luxe Interior, if he were dead. Like Mulholland Drive, there’s a chance I’m not understanding everything that’s happening here, but I’m sure as hell enjoying it. Now, how about it: The Raveonettes do Blue Velvet?

Friday, December 19, 2008

#7


Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight (Fat Cat)

Nervy, rollicking, convulsive alt-folk-indie-rock. The best thing going in Scottish guitar pop. Equal parts hope and despair. Lush, tic-driven, and catchy. Hum it when you’re up, bellow it when you’re down. [Aw, jeezus, does anybody actually read this stuff?]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

#8


The Vandermark 5, Beat Reader (Atavistic)

Ken Vandermark’s mugshot ought to accompany the definition of “restless” in your Colliers or your OED. In jazz terms, he’s as promiscuous as they come, leaping from project to project, starting new bands, resurrecting old ones. – one-offs, touring ensembles, tributes, film music, intriguing collaborations… If it’s adventurous, he’s game. Once the tally is complete, I expect he’ll have released hundreds of recordings. But for better than a decade, he’s always returned to the Vandermark 5. That any working jazz unit has endured today’s climate for eleven years is truly remarkable; that it has managed to hold Vandermark’s interest is miraculous. There have been lineup changes, of course, but the core dictum of pushing free music in all directions has remained undisturbed. The V5, as it currently stands, is the exciting Dave Rempis on alto and tenor saxophone, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics, Kent Kessler on bass, Tim Daisy on drums, and Vandermark, who here sticks to the low end of the register, playing baritone sax and clarinet. It’s a good choice, because he spends much of Beat Reader’s 69 minutes exploiting the guttural qualities of the baritone to an effect similar to his work on Bridge 61’s (excellent) 2006 release Journal, which is to say that a lot of the time the thing flat-out rocks. Vandermark’s gift is his combinatory approach; simply, his palette is larger that most. Punk, rock and funk are as ripe for pillaging as are blues, jazz, classical, what have you. This inclusiveness is what has always marked the great Vandermark 5 releases (Single Piece Flow, Target or Flag, A Discontinuous Line), and here it means that the quintet veer from spastic energy to containment and austerity in the blink of an eye. They are simultaneously controlled and unhinged; propulsive and passive, as appropriate. Lonberg-Holm’s cello is capable of centering the proceedings in a way that Jeb Bishop’s guitar could not. Similarly, Rempis’ tenor pushes things further into the funk realm. All in all, it is what we have come to expect from the V5: more of everything, the world in an hour. I wouldn’t dare slight Ken Vandermark for his restlessness and his creative hyperactivity. It simply results in too much incredible music. But I do hope he always calls the Vandermark 5 home.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

#9


Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (XL)

So much advance hype preceded the release of Vampire Weekend that anything less than Album of the Year plaudits might be seen as a letdown. Well, whatever, they made a very good album, a wry, confident, highly listenable pop record replete with those much-discussed African pop influences. It’s like extras from a Bret Easton Ellis book put out a record, and though you long to hate them for their pedigree and their unearned trust fund security, you can’t deny the songs. Vampire Weekend pull off the neat trick of harkening back to a simultaneously ironic and carefree time that likely didn’t actually exist, and making you feel nostalgic for it just the same. Dance, deny, repeat. We knew "Mansard Roof" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" were good; turns out they weren't complete flukes. "Campus," "Oxford Comma" and "A-Punk" are just as solid. Dance, dance, dance.

#10


Dave Douglas & Keystone, Moonshine (Greenleaf)

No surprise here, really, as Douglas seems to show up annually on my list, he just continues to evolve and to impress. Keystone is the band which originally came together around the 2005 album of that name, a project inspired by the silent films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, he of the infamous Hollywood scandal, but this music is genuinely affectionate toward Arbuckle’s work. The 2005 disc even included a DVD containing an Arbuckle short film. In 2008 the band remains the same save for the keyboard chair, where Adam Benjamin replaces Jamie Saft. DJ Olive is present again, and he’s given more room to provide atmospherics and quasi-instrumental interjections than he was on the first album. John Kelman of AllAboutJazz.com sums it all up nicely:
What makes Moonshine ultimately such a success [...] is Douglas’ ability to cloak avant-garde concerns in accessible surroundings. As deep and challenging as anything he’s ever recorded, Moonshine remains an album that’s as much food for the heart and soul as it is for the mind, and continues Douglas’ remarkably unbroken string of superb and uncompromising releases.

Monday, December 15, 2008

#11


Francois Carrier, Within (Leo)

Within is the sound of a trio of musicians (Carrier on alto and soprano saxophones, Jean-Jacques Avenel on bass and thumb piano, and Michel Lambert on drums, recorded live in Calgary) exhibiting group awareness and musical intuition so strong that it verges on telepathy. “The Moment” and “Experience” bookend the 40-minute “Core,” a staggering piece of creation-in-motion, an improvised statement of impressive depth and such obvious elation for the players that one is tempted to invoke some pretty heavy names as comparison points. But let’s resist that temptation and call it simply “singular,” perhaps even rapturous, and absolutely compelling.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

#12


Love is All, A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night (What’s Your Rupture)

Just like their debut Nine Times That Same Song, this year’s A Hundred Things… plays out like a breathless run-on sentence, a harried and frenzied burst of energy, my two-year old daughter’s sugar rush babblings set to chugga-chugga post-punk guitars, the skronking saxophone, nervous tic drums, bubbly keyboards and Josephine Olausson's amateurish (in a good way) English-as-a-second-language vocals all competing to see who can get to the end of the song first, and even when they do slow it down, like on "When Giants Fall" or “Last Choice,” they make it so damn poppy-sweet, but not too TOO sugary, that you probably dance just as hard as you do to the fast stuff, so the cumulative effect is one of, yes, YES I like this, and after the second or third listen you’re bleating right along with Jansson, doing the freak-spank, playing rhythm guitar on a wooden spoon (or broom or hairbrush), and when, after a scant 32 minutes, the whole thing is over, you think to yourself, well THAT was fun.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

#13


Matana Roberts, The Chicago Project (Central Control)

Chicago-born saxophonist Matana Roberts came to notice playing with the trio Sticks and Stones (with Chad Taylor and Josh Abrams) whose 2004 album Shed Grace was one of that year’s best. In 2008 she fronts an impressive quartet comprised of Jeff Parker on guitar, Abrams on bass and Frank Rosaly on drums. The group’s first release is The Chicago Project, a record notable for the quality of its quartet pieces as well as the three sax duets which place Roberts alongside the legendary Fred Anderson.

#14


The Hold Steady, Stay Positive (Vagrant)

We’re still swooning over Boys and Girls in America, to be honest. That record’s bless-the-losers vibe, its rousing acceptance of advancing age and casual transgression, its ruddy heart, and its songs, were so on, so right, that it’s one of the rare records I’m listening to two years later. So expectations for Stay Positive were high, and for the most part, Craig Finn and co. deliver again. Opener “Constructive Summer” hits like a hot mid-afternoon beer buzz, and scores bonus points for referring to Joe Strummer as a saint. Then you find yourself in the midst of “Sequestered in Memphis,” which should already be playing on classic rock stations across the land on the strength of its piano-organ-guitar front line and its sing-along chorus. We’ll call “One for the Cutters” a brave misfire, because this band’s done enough to earn some of our patience, but yeah, the harpsichord (!) is a mistake. Things chug along like that, though, with pinches and dashes of a lot of the songs you’ve loved since you could turn on a radio yourself. It doesn’t all really gel again until track 8, “Stay Positive,” where the bile-and-nostalgia lyrics and the guitars mesh with the shouted “whoa-oh-ho-ho” chorus, and you begin to wonder if you haven’t shouted along with that chorus sometime in the hazy past, somewhere you can’t name. The Hold Steady frequently arouse such false memories; they’re sometimes called classicists, and sometimes labeled nothing more than a bar band, but as long as we have need for bars, we’ll have need for bar bands, especially ones as good as this. At their core such groups are made up of people who’ve obviously spent their lives listening to Big Albums, and hoping they’d make one themselves someday. These guys did – it was called Boys and Girls in America – and now they’ve followed it up with a Damn Good Album. It could never be as invigorating as hearing Boys and Girls… for the first time, but Stay Positive is the record that confirms that this band is one to grow older alongside. I said it in ’06, and I think it holds true: The Hold Steady’s failures seem terribly real, and their victories kind of feel like your own.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

#15


The Night Marchers, See You in Magic (Swami/Vagrant)

John Reis seems to know only one thing, and that’s how to play the world’s best grimy rock & roll. The man also known as Speedo has been the drive behind Drive Like Jehu, the mighty Rocket From the Crypt, the Sultans, the Hot Snakes, and now, having closed the lid on all those bands, he’s formed the Night Marchers. See You in Magic is the band’s debut, another winner in the Reis catalog, 13 more songs to add to the canon. The guitars on Reis-related records always sound the way angry guitars should sound: raw, loud, taut. The drums are big, the vocals are Reis’ trademark growl and yelp, and the songs are tuneful and tight. The loss of RFTC was lamentable for fans of no-bullshit garage rock. Similarly, both the Sultans and the Hot Snakes seemed incapable of wrong moves. They’re all gone now, but See You in Magic points toward a future where Reis continues to provide just what’s needed. Here’s hoping the run continues, though it shows no signs of doing otherwise.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

#16


Bill Dixon with the Exploding Star Orchestra, Bill Dixon with the Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey)

Head Exploding Star Rob Mazurek continues to enjoy an exciting career, neatly treading the line between Chicago’s fertile post-rock scene and all-out free jazz. Indeed, he provides a handy figurehead for that nexus, in that the point he occupies is now so thoroughly associated with both of those musical movements that they have probably now, or will soon merge altogether. For the second ESO release, Mazurek was lucky enough to attract the attention of Bill Dixon, who not only agreed to play on the set, but composed the two-part suite (“Entrances”) which opens and closes the album. Sandwiched between them is Mazurek’s “Constellations for Innerlight Projections (For Bill Dixon)”, so all in all it made sense to credit the project to Bill Dixon with… As with last year’s amazing We Are All From Somewhere Else, the Orchestra, made up of 13 Chicago improvising music scenesters, employ everything under the sun, from free blowing to melodic noodling to good old-fashioned space-age big band swinging, and once again flutist Nicole Mitchell is on hand to nearly steal the show. But Bill Dixon holds his own, too, and the end result is a thrilling recording which rewards repeat listens. Given the ever-present need for new and unpredictable sounds, it is perhaps no surprise that free jazz is alive and well; the big surprise is that its health is due in some measure to the mathrockers. With each daring and fresh release, they threaten their own oblivion, bound to become instead simply the next generation of improvisers. This record feels like a tacit acknowledgment of that very fact, a nod of appreciation from an elder to his natural descendents.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

#17


Sun Kil Moon, April (Caldo Verde)

Mark Kozelek’s tuneful drone of a voice and solid guitar chops, when wrapped about the melodies he snatches from thin air with alarming regularity, are always cause for celebration – or more accurately, for wistful longing and/or deep brooding. On April he conjures another set of stunners, an album which begins with the daunting “Lost Verses,” a song which, at nearly ten minutes long, provides something of a Sun Kil Moon primer. The next several tracks strum and wail and lull and thrash in a pleasing blur until the album crescendos on the ten-plus minute “Tonight the Sky,” an unruly guitar exercise which nevertheless retains its pretty core, lacing a tender vocal refrain amid the squall. If the final three tracks feel like a coda after that, it should be said that they form a damn fine one, and the four alternate performances on the second disc are similarly pleasing. On the last album of original Sun Kil Moon material, 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway, Kozelek provided two interpretations of his own song; the first, “Salvador Sanchez,” was a ragged take, built around a big electric guitar riff, while the second, called “Pancho Villa,” was the same song performed with a strummed acoustic guitar and a subtle backing arrangement. Both worked. And the beauty of April, as with so much of Kozelek’s work, is that you have the sense that he could pull the same trick with any of these songs, and the results would be equally impressive.

Monday, December 8, 2008

#18


Bitter Funeral Beer Band, Live in Frankfurt ’82 (w/ Don Cherry & K. Sridhar) / Live in Nurnberg ‘84 (Country & Eastern)

In 1981 Swedish percussionist Bengt Berger, having studied West African music in Ghana, distilled his experience, convened a band, recorded and released Bitter Funeral Beer on the storied ECM label. He then put together a motley touring version of the band, a sprawling, boisterous ensemble, and toured Europe. The band never cut another studio album, but thanks to German state radio we have two extant live recordings, recently released on Berger’s own Country & Eastern label. The earlier set features the horn and personality of Don Cherry, who recognized in the project and in the person of Berger a kindred spirit to his own efforts to fuse world music and the jazz tradition (see: Cherry’s Mu suite), as well as sarod player K. Sridhar. It shines with a sense of inclusiveness and joyous abandon. The Nurnberg date feels more ragged, but no less exuberant, a rollicking percussion party so celebratory that it’s hard to decide who was having more fun, the audience or the band. Both albums are warm, well-recorded, and engaging, a pair of worthy additions to the global-minded improvised canon.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

#19


The Dodos, Visiter (Frenchkiss)

The Dodos make a joyful racket, a clangy thumping folky noise that some might say is freak-folk, but since I hate that genre and I like this, it can’t be so, right? Logan Kroeber’s percussion makes this tick, but without songs, man, it wouldn’t hold together. Alright, sometimes Meric Long’s singing is a bit strained, a bird in search of a wire too high, but the inherent sincerity puts you in a forgiving mood. Visiter [sic] fits in ’08 because you can hear the WOMAD influence, like if When Your Heartstrings Break was less brass band, more African percussion. And like Beulah, you get a frenetic mind-rush without ever feeling rushed or frenetic, just like you’re being kind of pleasantly zipped along on a pop-rock bumper car. Junkyard pop? World indie? Seussian rock? Pick a tag, then enjoy.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

#20


The Baseball Project, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails (Yep Roc)

Aw, c’mon, was there more of a sure thing for my list in 2008? A jangly power-pop record made by Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck (as well as Steve Wynn and Linda Pitmon) and devoted to baseball? Not fair. There are no more sure ways to bypass my critical sensibilities. What’s fantastic about this collection of diamond-themed songs is that they aren’t mere wistful odes to a bullshit bucolic pipedream of innocence and father-son catch sessions. No, they’re genuine nods of appreciation to the real people who’ve played the game. In that sense, Frozen Ropes… is less Field of Dreams, more Bull Durham, and that’s alright by me. Characters are what make these songs fly, lyrically – be it Curt Flood, Satchel Paige, Fernando Valenzuela, Harvey Haddix, Black Jack McDowell, or “Ted Fucking Williams.” Musically, the record rides the strengths of the amassed musicians, each of whom possess a heady power-pop CV. The titles suggests a second volume is forthcoming; if so, sign me up now.

Hey, how about that? I got through that whole blurb without resorting to the use of a baseball pun. Homerun!

Friday, December 5, 2008

#21


DJ /rupture and Andy Moor, Patches (Unsuitable)

With apologies to the much-lauded Uproot, Patches is the best thing that Jace Clayton, a.k.a. DJ/rupture released in 2008, an inspired duet with guitarist Andy Moor, best known as a cog in the great and terrible machine that is the Ex. Patches is a collision of abrasion and disruption, a series of sonicscapes fusing Clayton’s aural ephemera with Moor’s improvised guitar imaginings. The result is like playing cut-and-splice with your dream-reels as soundtracked by Fred Frith’s negative-image doppelganger. A serious headplay.

#22


Titus Andronicus, The Airing of Grievances (Troubleman Unlimited)

First impressions: Conor Oberst fronting a ragged punk band. But the more I listened, the more I began to appreciate Titus Andronicus’ blend of desperation and nihilism. The Airing of Grievances is a harrowing trip through the psyche of the thinking punk.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

#23


23. Peggy Lee Band, New Code (Drip Audio)

Vancouver cellist Lee (not to be confused with the original Peggy Lee) expands her group from a sextet to an octet with the addition of a tenor saxophone (Jon Bentley) and a second guitarist (Ron Samworth joins Tony Wilson). The result is New Code, a record of performances which strike the right balance between composed and improvised. Lee began her career as a classical musician before shifting into the new music and improvised world; classical music’s loss is the improvisors' gain (and ours too).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

#24


The Constantines, Kensington Heights (Arts & Crafts)

I was primed to push Kensington Heights right into the top ten before I’d even heard it. Something about this band hits me squarely in the chest, makes me want to champion them, spread their gospel. But the record unfortunately fails to deliver on the trajectory promised by their three album run (The Constantines -> Shine a Light -> Tournament of Hearts), instead surrounding a handful of strong songs with less impressive material. I’m choking on that last sentence, though, because sub-par material for the Constantines is still damn good stuff. It’s never less than honest, nothing but heartfelt, and obviously crafted with yeoman-like dedication. It’s all listenable, enjoyable and well made, but only on a couple of occasions – “Million Dollar Hotel,” “Trans Canada” and “Credit River” stand out – do they rise to the sorts of heights that you’ve come to expect of a Cons album. Call it a place-saver in the canon, something to tide us over until the next jaw-dropper.

Monday, December 1, 2008

#25


The Gaslight Anthem, The ’59 Sound (Side One Dummy)

I hate myself for loving you,” sang Joan Jett, and the words apply here, because New Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem recycle so many worn clich├ęs that I wince when I think about the lyrics. But damn it if I don’t find myself singing along. They aim for a Springsteenian resonance; they come off as more of a Social Distortion retread (not that I don't love Social Distortion, but...). But there’s honesty in the effort. It’s true that singer Brian Fallon sounds a hell of a lot like the Bruce of “Johnny 99”, and there’s that shared Jersey heritage, so that’s fair; I expect there are worse things a kid from New Brunswick (New Jersey) can get caught up in than Springsteen worship. The whole thing reads like the natural outcome of a kid who’s spent his life relating to his hero’s lyrics and the characters brought to life therein. Musically there’s nothing groundbreaking here, but I’d be quick to say that though the Gaslight Anthem get lumped in with the Warped Tour mallpunk thing, they’re really just a rock & roll band with an ear for sing-along melodies. So, yeah, you take the good and you take the not-so-good. Over-obvious lyrics that borrow too many tropes about a halcyon past where guys wooed dolls by wearing their hearts on their rolled-up sleeves (sample song titles: “Miles Davis and the Cool,” “Here’s Looking at You, Kid”) and which actually quote Springsteen on more than one occasion? Check. Songs that you find yourself singing days later? Double check.

You Know What Time It Is

The holiest time of the year: list season! In deference to my multitudinous musical personalities, I made like it was 2007 all over again and produced an holistic list – no segregation, no sellout – of my favourite sounds, be they rock/pop, jazzy jass jazz, or otherwise. What follows this post will be expositions both witty and urbane on the best twenty-five slices of musical Valhalla that found disc space on the TiOM Sansa in 2008.

The plan is to reveal one a day for twenty-five days, right up to Christmas Day, so add TiOM to your feeds so as not to miss a second of the thrilling action, or whatnot.Thereafter, tune in for posts about my favourite songs, albums that count as also-rans, and maybe, I don’t know, an incredibly well-presented essay on the role of improvisation in establishing new markets for musicians in the age of the download. (That last one’s a big maybe, though.)

So settle in and prepare to waste the month of December with me. It's not like you had anything else planned, right?