What I Listened To in 2009
(For Complete Archive, Text Only, Click Here)
Michael Penn: March (RCA 1989)
The sonic complexity of the studio production, courtesy of Patrick Warren, does not obscure the fact that Penn is basically a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar. But the arrangements, particularly the percussion, keep it lively. "No Myth" was the big hit and sounds a lot like Crowded House (as does "Innocent One"), and elsewhere there are strong echoes of Chuck Berry ("Brave New World"), David Bowie ("Bedlam Boys") and Bob Dylan (almost every song, including a wonderfully nasal moment of singing on "No Myth"). Penn's lyrics are sometimes described as bitter, but I've always found them to be a balance between a cynical realism and a joyful idealism. Case in point, the rollicking closing track: "Evenfall."
Emmylou Harris: Light of the Stable (Reprise 1979)
It seems that every Christmas season we play one seasonal record more that the rest. This year, it was Emmylou's, recorded when she moved into to a more "traditional" country sound (in other words, she got rid of the honky-tonk piano and electric guitars and started recording acoustic versions of bluegrass standards). It's worth noting that the original cover photograph (stupidly replaced with other images in its digital releases) emphasizes that these are religious songs; there's no "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" here! But if you want "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" and "Away In a Manger," and don't want overproduced schlock, this is the record you want playing when you're unwrapping presents.
Robert Fripp & Brain Eno: No Pussyfooting (EG 1973)
With exams to grade and then grades to calculate, I don't want background music that's too distracting. I don't feel like hearing Erik Satie, so this fit the bill nicely. Long, droning washes of decaying sound support twisting, snaking squeals of electric guitar. In the absence of melody and harmonic progression, there's noting but texture and tone. In short, my office has music, yet there's nothing to distract me as I determine whether a student has accurately summarized standard defenses of medical confidentiality. As the titles suggest, "Heavenly Music Corporation" is a bit more soothing than "Swastika Girls," for the latter has a greater sense of competing motions.
Derek and the Dominos: Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (Atco 1970)
It's Eric Clapton's best record, yet it is by no means a Clapton record. It's a group project, which is why it works. Clapton teams up with Bobby Whitlock and writes the best songs of his career; Clapton and Whitlock trade vocal lines, energizing Clapton; they team up with Duane Allman, and his guitar work inspires and energizes Clapton. And their rhythm section is no slouch, either: it's drummer Jim Gordon's piano composition that provides the long coda of "Layla." The result is a two-record set (one compact disc) that never grows old. Their live recordings, without Allman, are somewhat dull, and lack "Layla" because they broke up before it became their FM radio hit.
Super Session (Columbia 1969;Expanded 2003)
Between projects (in other words, kicked out of his most recent band), Kooper recruited Bloomfield (between projects, too, most likely due to his drug problem) to record a quickie blues album. Bloomfield didn't come back the second day (most likely due to his drug problem), so Kooper finished it with Stills (who was starting Crosby Stills & Nash). Bloomfield plays guitar on side one, Stills on side two. The opening minute of this album tells you everything there is to know about Bloomfield: it's a blistering, joyous solo. Some of Kooper's overly-busy horn arrangements now sound dated, which is why those who love this album love the expanded CD: we get two of the best tracks (the opener, and "Season of the Witch") with the overdubs removed.
Sinead O'Connor: Sean-Nůs Nua (Vanguard 2002)
The title means "old-made-new," or something like that. We won't fuss here about the limits of translation. But that's the issue: what we have here is a collection of 13 "traditional" Irish songs, using "traditional" instruments, such as banjo and bouzouki. (In other words, not really.) Generally, I hate this stuff. Here, I love it, mainly because her singing is astoundingly moving. The opening track, "Peggy Gordon," is a close cousin of the song "The Water is Wide," and this is one of the best versions I've heard. After 12 songs about lost love and Irish suffering and homesickness, it ends with a rousing "I'll Tell Me Ma," so we culminate with optimism instead of misery. If she ever releases Sean-Nůs Nua Vol. II, I'll buy it right away.
The Jayhawks: Tomorrow the Green Grass (American 1995)
One of the best of the "alternative country" movement, and perhaps the best of the non-punk, non-funk bands to emerge from Minneapolis/St. Paul. Adding Mark Olson to the band changed their vocal sound: the harmonies are a lot richer on this one, and suddenly they sound more like The Byrds in country-rock mode and less like the Flying Burrito Brothers. (That's meant as a compliment.) They front-load the thing with four great uptempo songs. But as I listen to it again, I find that the most moving song comes later: "See Him on the Street" is a short story about seeing an acquaintance years after he vanished and was declared a sucide. Gram Parsons would have killed for this song.
Paul Kantner & Grace Slick: Sunfighter (Grunt 1971)
My sharing on this page is not always a recommendation. This record so strongly evokes its time and place for me that I cannot pretend to be very objective, for it's as much a time machine as music. The first two songs illustrate, if nothing else, that the hippie mindset was often complex and conflicted. "Silver Spoon" scorns PC eating habits before we knew what "PC" meant, while the fragment "Diana, Part 1" wonders whether the overthrow of the status quo is really worth the price of the deaths that will result. And then there's "When I Was a Boy I Watched the Wolves," so good that they should have given it to their group, Jefferson Airplane, but which they kept for themselves.
Warren Zevon: Life'll Kill Ya (Artemis 2000)
There is conflicting information about whether he knew that he had terminal cancer when he made this record. (Yet I think it's superior to The Wind, made when he definitely knew so.) It ranges from stripped-down acoustic numbers ("Hostage-O") to something approaching rock'n'roll ("Porcelain Monkey," a runaway metaphor about Elvis's decline). A lot of it is profane, rude, and deliberately offensive, but not without rhetorical effect, and almost every song is tuneful and catchy. There's also a very strong take on a song he didn't write, "Back in the High Life Again," arranged as wishful thinking rather than boasting.
Crowded House: Together Alone (EMI 1993)
In America they're pretty much a one-hit wonder (the first album's "Don't Dream It's Over") but worldwide they were a hit-making machine. Fronted by Neil Finn, this was a rock band that remembered to put melodies and hooks into their music, which requires a great singer. Sure enough: they had one: Finn's singing is always the primary attraction. This, their fourth album, is my favorite, with a balance between uptempo rockers and yearning ballads and between simple and elaborate arrangements. There's not a bad track on here, but four of these songs are as good as some of the best popular songs of the last fifty years: "Pineapple Head," "Private Universe," "Distant Sun," and "Catherine Wheels." But you might pick four others from the same album, and I might agree.
Led Zeppelin: Presence (Swan Song 1976)
Didn't much care for this when it was new, when the cover art seemed more interesting than the music. Now it's quite grown on me, and the four longest tracks are among my favorite Led Zep performances. The opener, "Achilles' Last Stand," has genuine grandeur. The closer, "Tea For One," is sheer desolation. Many fans think that this is their least satisfying disc, but I think that the group is so in tune with one another that they've finally gotten down to playing together without trying to call attention to their instrumental chops. There's no clutter and no over-arranging. Page's lead guitar is a constant delight, always serving the tune. As for the singing, I think that this might be Plant's consistently best album.
Linda Ronstadt: Mad Love (Elektra 1980)
Right here we have an illustration of what I hate about the rating system at places like Amazon.com -- on Amazon, this LP averages four out of five stars, which suggests that it's a good record. It's not. I put it on because there are two or three songs that I wanted to hear. Maybe four. Which leaves six tracks that are unbelievably misguided: poor songs, poorly suited to her voice, poorly arranged. (In case you don't know, it's Linda's attempt to make a trendy "new wave" record, but two of the strongest tracks are the cover versions of Neil Young and a 1960's rock'n'roll hit.) If you want to listen to Blondie, listen to Blondie, and beware of fans who can't bear to admit when their favorite artist has gone wrong.
Miles Davis: In A Silent Way (Columbia 1969)
In the early part of the day I avoid playing music that might disturb the work of those in neighboring offices. The last few days, it's been this record. Musically, it's more about John McLaughlin's guitar than Davis's horn playing, which only occasionally joins the proceedings. For much of its two long tracks, the music flows aimlessly ("grooving," as they used to say in the 60s), occasionally becoming a little more animated and even a bit cluttered before it settles down again. The highlight is the Josef Zawinul tune that gives the album its title; you just want it to go on and on. Before they edited the tapes and pulled out the choicest moments, I guess it did.
Jesse Winchester: Humour Me (Sugar Hill 1989)
I guess he lives on his songwriting royalties, because each time I acquire another one of his records, I find it has a song the he wrote that was a hit for someone else. This time, it's "Well-A-Wiggy," a gospel-tinged, doo-wop nonsense song that was a minor hit for the Weather Girls. It contains one of the most inspirational verses I've come across recently: "Well baby don't you worry / Because everything is peachy / Everything is jelly / Wiggy everything is pie." Delivered with his usual sweet drawl, backed by some of the most notable bluegrass musicians that money can rent, the whole album is a mellow stroll through love's complications.
Pretenders: Break Up The Concrete (Artist First 2008)
Songs. Got to have good songs or what's the point? Something seems to have taken hold of Chrissie Hynde, inspiring her to write her strongest batch in years. Instant classic: "Love's a Mystery." Although he still tours with the group, drummer Martin Chambers is notably absent, explaining the music's lighter feel. Ace session drummer Jim Keltner makes an essential contribution to the Bob Diddly groove of the title track and the staccato beat of "Rosalee." I've seen it described as their "country" record, but not really. (Not like "Thumbelina" back in 1984. Now that was country!) Okay, there's pedal steel. There are more slow ones than rockers, but almost every song is memorable.
XTC: Skylarking (Geffen 1986, Expanded CD Caroline 2002)
The garden is in bloom and the lawns are lush and need mowing more than once a week. It's time for Skylarking, an album about lying in the grass, tilling the soil, and all that nostalgic British Romantic longing for Thomas Hardy's poor peasants. While I have no such Romantic longing, the opening four songs are about as perfect a sequence as you'll find anywhere: "Summer's Caldron" to "Grass" to "The Meeting Place" to "That's Really Super, Super Girl." Produced by Todd Rundgren, it's the best Donovan album Donovan never made. In retrospect, I have mixed feelings about "Dear God," the song that got attention back when the album was new. Shouldn't they have been singing to Zeus or Bacchus?
Fathers and Sons (Chess 1969, MCA Expanded CD 2001)
I just saw the film Cadillac Records, about Chess Records and the Chicago blues, and I didn't much care for it. In particular, I despised the plot construction that implied that, had it not been for ENGLISH blues fans and musicians, Muddy Waters would have died in obscurity. What the film didn't want to show was his relationship with white boys here in the USA. Fathers and Sons is a beautifully recorded Muddy Waters album in which he performs many of his best songs, in both studio and live settings. He's supported by a mixed race band of older bluesmen (the "fathers") and hot-shot white boys who learned from them (the "sons"). And far from ending his career, it was the start of a genuine comeback.
Nigel Kennedy: Kennedy Plays Bach (EMI 2000)
Because he sells a lot of records, the pawn shops always have Kennedy discs available. I didn't buy it because it's him, but rather to get the Concerto for oboe and violin in D minor. He's supposed to be a "rebel" in the world of serious music, but barely is. It's like Arland Specter, a rebel with seniority the United States Senate. I do like the zippy tempos, and the Berlin Philharmonic is just sonic sugar, an aural cotton candy. It's perfect background music for grading final exams for my modern philosophy course. You've got Bach, soundtrack for the rational dimension of the Enlightenment, and you've got the solo instruments for the rise of the individual. Or something like that.
Bill Evans Trio: Portait in Jazz (Riverside 1959; expanded 2001)
Or, portrait of the young artist after a stint with Miles Davis, including "Blue in Green," a tune he wrote with Davis (or, perhaps, for which Davis took half the credit). Having not listened to Evans in a while, I am forcefully struck by the similarities to Thelonious Monk. Granted, Evans is less radical and more melodic; it's sort of Monk-polished. Besides Evans' way with a standard -- Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart -- there is the amazing bass support of Scott LaFaro. Evans wanted the freedom of free jazz, minus the cacophony, with each player free to simultaneously improvise. While Paul Motian's drumming is relatively straightforward, LaFaro is an inventive foil for Evans, providing an alternative, interesting focal point during passages of each performance.
Bob Dylan: New Morning (Columbia 1970)
Columbia, or Sony -- or whoever the corporation is these days --continues to release remastered Dylan discs. As before, there are no "extras." This might be one of Dylan's two or three most amiable albums, full of (seemingly) happy songs. But scratch the surface and the major themes are dislocation (he's constantly moving on to somewhere else, such as Utah, or the Dakotas), religious faith, and nostalgia (except for the term "dude," "Winterlude" might be a Hoagy Carmichael song). Most of the arrangements are rooted in piano, giving it a unique feel for a Dylan album. His own playing on "Sign on the Window" supports one of his best melodies, simple words, and great singing.
John Cale: Music For A New Society (Warner 1982)
"Damn life, damn life" he sings over a piano that haltingly plays the melody from the "Ode to Joy." There's no joy here, so it was the perfect soundtrack to recent events, trying to keep a handle on things while the social structure started to fall apart. (For you, that may mean the economy. For me, it meant the local river forcing an evacuation.) From "natural" bonds (a mother and her children in the opening song) to international ones ("Chinese Envoy"), Cale's lyrics and music explore the darkest emotions. Frayed emotions are frequently heightened by sonic distortion, and the few serene moments are welcome respites.
Various Artists: Keep on the Sunny Side: Bluegrass Salutes The Carter Family (CMH 2003)
I'm not so deep into bluegrass that I recognized all the names of the performers of these nineteen songs. (Who's Joe Maphis? He's darn good on that guitar.) While I wonder if this music would sell a few more copies if the album graphics weren't so horrible, I do appreciate the oddly informative liner notes, which trace the histories of the various songs. I've always like "Cannonball Blues," but now I marvel at the strangeness of its perspective (President McKinley has a premonition of his assassination and bids farewell to his "honey babe"). Yet there's not much info about the performers. Is that Missy Raines I like on "Pawn You My Gold Watch and Chain," or Martha Adcock?
Linda Thompson: Versatile Heart (Rounder 2007)
With the disappearance of record stores, learning about new records has become a hit-or-miss process. I don't know how I stumbled across the existence of this one, but I did. She has few equals when it comes to performing a ballad, and there are some fine ones here, especially Rufus Wainwright's "Beauty" -- the opening line of which, "Beauty, you make me sad," describes her own accomplishments. The other standouts are Waits and Brennan's "Day After Tomorrow" and her own "Go Home" and "Whisky, Bob Copper and Me." The arrangements are primarily acoustic, and I was delighted to find that the closing arrangement (of a lovely tune by her son Teddy) is by Robert Kirby, of Nick Drake fame.
Van Morrison: Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2009)
There's an ancient rule in aesthetics: only a direct encounter with the object can reveal its value. Here's confirmation of that rule. In theory, this should be wonderful. In practice, not so much. Astral Weeks is a unique record (and I wrote about it in my most recent book). Recreated live, the arrangements hew so closely to the record that it feels embalmed. What ruins it for me, though, is the singing. If you don't have them memorized, I dare you to tell me the words to the first three lines of the opening song, "Astral Weeks." He sounds like he's singing through a mouth full of porridge. Nor am I a fan of the change in song sequence. And he did better versions of "Listen to the Lion" and "Cypress Avenue" on his 1974 live album, It's Too Late to Stop Now.
Graham Parker: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista 1979, expanded 1996)
Those are sparks shooting out of his head, a nice metaphor for the way his anger erupts into song. The expanded CD follows the original album with the same again, except live (a little faster and less polished, with some over-amplified backing vocals). I love both versions. I know that some people are put off by "You Can't Be Too Strong," which is frequently cited as a pro-life diatribe. Really? Since when is empathy a political stance? It seems perfectly in keeping with the anti-Americanism of "Discovering Japan," one of Parker's nastiest and best songs. Of all his records, this one does the most justice to the guitar playing of Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont.
David Bowie: Hunky Dory (RCA 1971)
A snatch of one song, "Queen Bitch," features prominently in the film Milk, leading me back to this album. It's one of Bowie's early albums and yet one of the last that I came to know. It features the full Spider From Mars band, used to such good effect on the next three albums, yet the sound is dominated by Rick Wakeman's florid piano work. The songs include three of my favorites: "Oh! You Pretty Things," "Life on Mars?," and "The Bewlay Brothers." And now that I'm no longer disappointed by the relative lack of rock and roll, what used to sound like "filler" sounds tuneful and meditative. A blueprint for Morrissey's career?
Cassandra Wilson: Belly of The Sun (Blue Note 2002)
She's unusual in that she's never made a bad record. This one's a bit more blues-based, largely due to the presence of "You Gotta Move" and "Hot Tamales." The former isn't all that different from the Rolling Stones' version. Many versions are cutesy and thus annoying. Her version is the first since Robert Johnson's that I enjoy. Beyond that, we have her usual mix of a few original songs and a bunch of standards. Not jazz standards, of course, but songs that you might know if you're visiting my web site. In this case, her failure to do anything special with The Band's "The Weight" is balanced by what she does with Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm" and the old pop hit "Wichita Lineman."
What I Listened to in 2008
What I Listened to in 2007
What I Listened to in 2006
What I Listened to in 2005
What I Listened to in 2004
What I Listened to in 2003
What I Listened to in 2002
What I Listened to in 2001
All text © 2009, 2010 Theodore Gracyk
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