What I Listened To 2013
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Annie Lennox: Christmas Cornucopia (Decca 2010)
We have quite a pile of Christmas discs at home, so we balance old favorites with wild cards. One of this year's new addition to the festivities was Annie Lennox. After Bach's Christmas Oratorio was rejected (not by me!) after one playing, Lennox was the only new addition to this year's playlist. Oddly, that means the less traditional won out, for, as one might expect, this is not a safe, soothing set of interpretations. Unlike Bach, the only choir to be heard is an African children's choir. Lennox tends to sing every song with maximum intensity. I see from reviews that many people loathe it. I predict it will become annual holiday music at our house.
Vladimir Ashkenazy: Chopin: Nocturnes, 4 Ballades (Decca 1997)
This week, these recordings are my workplace music. Some Chopin lovers criticize Ashkenazy as not passionate enough, as if emoting is music's essence. But why limit music, whether Chopin's or any other? Sometimes we want an escape from emotion. After all, these compositions aren't raw outpourings of his soul. They're composed. And they're composed subject to aesthetic standards. And these performances are lovely. What's more, Decca has now packaged these two discs with three others (featuring different pianists) in a boxed set that costs about a dollar more than this two-CD set.
John Cale: Shifty Adventures in the Nookie Wood (Domino 2012)
Lou Reed died recently, and I realized that I'd given up on new material from Reed some years back. Not so for his Velvets collaborator, John Cale. Half of the new record is wonderful. The guy can still write a song, and, as so often over his post-Velvets career, the aching, midtempo songs are his strong suit (here, "Mary," "Living with You," "Sandman"). The opener, "I Wanna Talk 2 U," begins uncharacteristically with just acoustic rhythm guitar, then builds into a rock arrangement with a electric guitar that seems to have dropped in from a Gamble and Huff soul music arrangement. Elsewhere, there are sonic experiments with voice synthesizers that leave me cold. But give him credit for trying.
Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball (Elektra 1995)
It's a purely academic question whether this is her best album (in a long career of very good albums). Despite the presence of "Waltz Across Texas," its certainly the least "country" sounding record she's made, but not because her source material -- Dylan, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, the McGarrigles -- is all that different. It's the heavy bottom end, the brooding tempos, and the sonic murk of Daniel Lanois's production. Ironically, the song that he contributes is the weakest track here. The standouts are "Goin' Back to Harlan," "Sweet Old World," and "Orphan Girl."
Various: Electric Muse (Island 1975)
Vinyl, four discs, and used copies are selling for the insane price of $100. The subtitle is misleading: "The Story of Folk into Rock." It's the story of British folk into British folk-rock. If we expanded it, we'd need Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, the Grateful Dead, and more. That quibble aside, it's a nice overview of the progression of sakbut and handbells to my favorite folk-rock band, Fairport Convention. Historically, I know perfectly well that the Middle Ages didn't sound anything like this, but emotionally, it feels like it did. And Davey Graham's take on Mingus' "Better Git It in Your Soul" is why I dug it out to listen to it today. But where's Nick Drake?
Bob Dylan: Another Self Portrait: Bootleg Series Vol. 10 (Columbia 2013)
Given how terrible his recent work can be, it's interesting to revisit the records that, until now, were regarded as Dylan's nadir. Personally, I like most of Self Portrait. Yet it's undeniable that some tracks ("Belle Isle") are far better without the overdubs they received without Dylan's supervision. The New Morning out-takes are well worth hearing, and yet none are better than the versions selected for that album. The real discoveries here? "Pretty Saro" is as good as anything he's ever recorded, yet here we find it was done in the midst of indifferent and weak performances. And, having ponied up for the deluxe box, I think the Isle of Wight concert is a blast.
The Doors: L.A. Woman (Elektra 1971; 2 disc edition 2012)
My favorite Doors album, hands down, in part for its skewering of the myth of L.A. as the land of sunshine and good times. The title track and "Riders on the Storm" are the two best long tracks they created, and "Love Her Madly" is perhaps the best of their "pop" songs. Aside from that track, it's a blues album with really superior lyrics. The presence of supporting musicians (including Jerry Scheff on bass) leads to greater swing and musical interplay. Guitarist Robbie Krieger shines throughout. The second disc reveals that they were remarkably consistent from take to take, and its concluding track, a cover of Muddy Waters' "Rock Me," should have been on the original album.
The Mavericks: In Time (Valory 2013)
After ten years, a reunion album. Fans are so grateful they're praising it, but I think it's their weakest album. Sure, I love the sound of the thing, especially the fusion of Latin and Tex-Mex elements. While I like the way that Jerry Dale McFadden decorates the songs with keyboard sounds not heard since the 1960s, guitarist Eddie Perez isn't given much space to solo. However, the big failing is the songs, few of which are memorable. In the past, part of the appeal was the brilliant arranging of well-chosen covers. But now singer Raul Malo reserves such music for his solo career. The result is one very bland ballad, six or seven festive tunes that sound pretty much the same, one swing tune, and one bizarre slow song with female chorus. Guess which one I like best.
Laura Nyro: Gonna Take a Miracle (Columbia 1971)
One of the very first, if not the first, "covers" albums centered around songs from the singer's formative years -- many others would borrow the idea in years to come. She used rising stars Labelle for backing vocals, and the results include stunning a cappella versions of "I Met Him on a Sunday" and "The Wind." Perhaps there are instruments, but in my memory there are just lush vocal harmonies. Elsewhere, R&B producers Gamble and Huff lay down funky grooves. The year that I was a college disc jockey, I usually included at least one track from this LP each time I spun discs. The 2002 expanded version makes it even better.
Sam Phillips: Cruel Inventions (Virgin 1992)
This record dates from early in Phillips's career, but after she abandoned Christian pop music. If you know the "roots" sound associated with the record production work of her husband, T. Bone Burnett, you're in for a shock. There's nothing rootsy here. This is singer-songwriter music as aural cotton candy, with inventive arrangements that tickle the palette. (Among others, Van Dyke Parks and Elvis Costello contribute.) Her husky vocals have never sounded better, and I'm not aware of a stronger set of songs on any of her later albums, good as they are. "Lying" is a particular favorite.
Brad Mehldau: Highway Rider (Nonesuch 2010)
He's an enormously talented jazz pianist. It is certainly in his favor that he's not afraid to cross genre boundaries. In this case, he's composed a large-scale instrumental work for jazz ensemble and orchestra. Mehldau writes that he is following in the steps of Haydn and Beethoven, developing all the "movements" from a single melodic motif. It was only after I'd decided that long stretches of it sounded like film soundtrack music that I noticed that the cover image is of a screen at a drive-in movie theater. Sure, most of it is pleasant, in an unobtrusive way, but I can't help but note that the music takes a quantum leap forward whenever the featured soloist is Joshua Redman on saxophone. Otherwise, much of it sounds like Dave Brubeck playing over Aaron Copland's music.
Nick Drake: Fruit Tree (Hannibal 1986)
When I got an iPod, my first move was to load it with the complete recordings of the Beatles and of Nick Drake. Fifteen months later, I've removed half of the Beatles catalogue but not a single one of the 45 tracks found on Fruit Tree, Drake's career retrospective. The first ten songs are beautifully arranged (Five Leaves Left). After that, the progressive intensity of his music is frightening. "Which Will," "Black Eyed Dog," "Pink Moon," and "Hanging on a Star" reveal the shallowness of thinking that pop songs do not reach the heights of great fine art. (For years there was little information available about Drake, but we now know that he had piano training and was intimately familiar with parts of the "classical" chamber music repertoire.)
Steely Dan: Gaucho (MCA 1980)
At the time, when punk still seemed vibrant, I was more interested in Joy Division than Steely Dan. Listening again, this record has come up immeasurably in my estimation. It's their groove album, some say; there's nothing noisy, noting too fast, and no big shifts in dynamics. All I know is that "Hey Nineteen" and "Gaucho" are aural heaven, and most of the rest of it is not far behind. The only evidence that the production of this music was a struggle (and they stopped making music after this for a very long time) is the acidic bitterness of Donald Fagen's voice on several of the tracks ("Third World Man" in particular) and the tension between the beauty of the musical surfaces and the ugliness of some of the characters the songs portray.
Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Phil Ochs: Amchitka (Greenpeace 2009)
Unreleased for 40 years, these two discs capture three "folk" musicians in their prime, raising money in 1970 to fund Greenpeace's challenge to nuclear testing at Amchitka, Alaska. But it's no longer available on the Greenpeace website. Which is a shame: this is the best recording of an early Joni Mitchell concert ever released, including two duets with Taylor and a performance of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Ochs is good, too. But it's Taylor who really shines here, as he so consistently does. Seven songs, and four of them are my top four favorites, in splendid versions: "Fire and Rain," "Carolina in My Mind," "Something in the Way," and "Sweet Baby James." It's singer-songwriter heaven.
Bob Dylan: Tempest (Columbia 2012)
Is this alt-country? Roots rock? Americana? All of the above? Is "Pay in Blood" a dark rewrite of "Right Time of the Night?" Is the title track, about the sinking of the Titanic, the most boring 14 minutes in Dylan's career? Rhetorical questions aside, I like the music (provided by his regular touring band, supplemented by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo). However, most of the songs are in the mode of his last few records; second-hand riffs and melodies support thematically linked couplets. Which is to say, the songs sound thrown together rather than composed. The two exceptions are "Tempest" and "Roll On John." He tries to be linear and focused, and fails miserably. Not a record that I can recommend to others.
The Gourds: Haymaker! (YepRoc 2009)
Is this alt-country? Roots rock? Americana? All of the above? What I know is that they're direct descendants of The Band, and they're nearly as good. (If you told me that "Country Gal" was an outtake from The Band's Rock of Ages concerts and that "Bridgett" is Steve Earle, you might have fooled me.) Other musical reference points are Los Lobos and the Beat Farmers. A few of the songs are overly derivative -- "Tex-Mex Mile" is a rewrite of "Six Days on the Road" -- but there's not a minute on this disc that bores me. "Country Love" is one of the best opening tracks I've heard in years, and "Valentine" is one of the best love songs.
Grateful Dead: Wake of the Flood (Grateful Dead Records 1973)
Released 40 years ago, this was the first Dead album I ever purchased. It is, in my view, their last good studio album, by which I mean it's their last album on which at least half of the material is fully successful. In fact, this one falls flat on only one track, "Let Me Sing Your Blues Away." It doesn't. Otherwise, what's distinctive about this album is the perfection of the group harmonies, the touches of jazz, and the sheer happiness of most of this music. That includes "Stella Blue," a Jerry Garcia showpiece that alternates world-weary ennui with rays of hope. Not coincidentally, my favorite Dead shows from the next decade are generally the ones that feature this song in the 2nd set.
Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music 2011)
The title might be my least favorite aspect of this collection of ten songs. If you're a Paul Simon fan, there's nothing radically new in either the sound of the record or the songwriting, and for a guy of 70, his voice is surprisingly fine. The theme, so far as there is one, is death -- sometimes literally, in the jokey "The Afterlife" (it isn't what he expected) and sometimes less directly, in his fixation on God, angels, and other spiritual matters. He's drawn on gospel music before, in "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Loves Me Like a Rock," but now on several tracks he samples directly from gospel records that predate his birth, making them (virtual) partners in smart mashups. Right now, I'm drawn to "Eternal Sacred Light," which sounds like a Graceland outtake: I like the complaint about the bad music on the radio.
Regina Spektor: Far (Sire 2009)
I want to like her music. I really do. In theory, I should. But I find that her voice and piano playing get tedious after a few songs. There's a steady pumping of the chord sequences and most of the melodies are cut from the same pattern. The piano goes pump pump pump and the voice chirps along, like Mary Margaret O'Hara on an uninspired day. Musically, I find that the use of seasoned producers -- four of them! -- provides the arrangements with clever touches that occasionally make me smile. If the melodies were more appealing, I might even like a few of these songs, but then "Laughing With" reminds me that you shouldn't write a pop song about God unless it's as good as XTC's "Dear God."
Faces: First Step (Warner Bros. 1970)
For contractual reasons, the North American album is credited to Small Faces, but that group had collapsed, to be revitalized by the addition of Rod Steward and Ron Wood. It has all their strengths and weaknesses: a fine rhythm section, slide guitar, sloppiness, tossed-off boogie beside brilliant songs, and the heavenly whirl of Ian McLagan's organ. As with the later albums, the rockers take on greater edge by their juxtaposition with Ronnie Lane's thoughtful, tender ballads. The first, "Devotion," arranges the voices of Lane and Stewart in a way that suggests Lane is the real bandleader. (He's also responsible for "Stone," which you might mistake for a folk song.) Lane's nimble bass playing is also the key to "Three Button Hand Me Down," a jolly shaggy-dog tale about a suit.
Thelonious Monk: Alone in San Francisco (Riverside 1959)
A live recording in a San Francisco nightclub, but there's no sonic record of an audience's presence, so he might really have been alone except for the recording engineer. The point, of course, is that he's playing solo instead of, as normally, with a quartet. (He was battling with his record company and was honoring his contract without recording new material!) All the same, it's one of my favorites: interpretations of his own compositions sit aside four standard tunes. Thus, Irving Berlins "Remember" is played as a sentimental parlor tune with splashes of "Chopsticks" and the occasional dissonance and disorienting filigree. His trademark choppiness is clearly a chosen effect, for there are many passages of rollicking boogie from his left hand and of delicacy from his right.
Harry Nilsson: Aerial Pandemonium Ballet (RCA 1971)
Nilsson was a relatively obscure singer-songwriter when his cover of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" was selected as the theme song for the film Midnight Cowboy. Then it won a Grammy. Nilsson used the sudden attention to cherry-pick tracks from his first two albums, remix them, alter the vocals, and construct this oddity. (The two inset images on the cover are the cover images of those other albums.) If "Rocky Racoon" and "She's Leaving Home" are among your favorite Beatles tracks, you'll probably love it. Nilsson's vocals are captivating, and his songwriting is often brilliant. "Good Old Desk" is a hymn to a desk, but also to the deity referenced by the initials formed by those words; if you're old enough, you certainly know the song "One."
Lambchop: Mr. M (Merge 2011)
It opens with fifteen seconds of meandering chamber music, reaching a mild dissonance that hangs in the air, leading to a jazz drumroll and piano. All very classy. Seven seconds later, singer Kurt Wagner shatters it with profanity. It may seem an odd analogy, but Wagner's music reminds me of Joseph Cornell's boxes of artfully arranged bric-a-brac. I don't' know what some of it is, or why it's important to him, and some of it is merely the garbage of everyday life, but the result is a delicate, haunting beauty. The song "2B2" sounds like the words were assembled from random thoughts: about taking down the Christmas lights, watching television, dealing with insomnia. You know, life.
J. D. Souther: Natural History (Entertainment One 2011)
This record has given me an unexpected degree of pleasure over the past few months. The controlling idea is that, now that he qualifies for social security benefits and Medicare, he's re-recorded a set of songs he wrote and recorded decades ago. His voice is nearly as pure as it was when these tuneful, memorablesongs were new. Most were major radio hits for other singers, including three songs he co-wrote with members of The Eagles. Without exception, I prefer these new, stripped-down versions to the glossy "originals," especially "New Kid in Town." The one song directly associated with Souther, "You're Only Lonely," is slow, sparse, and wonderful.
What I listened to in 2012
What I Listened to in 2011
What I Listened to in 2010
What I Listened to in 2009
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 © 2014 Theodore Gracyk
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