Theodore Gracyk

What I Listened To in 2014 

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Neville Marriner (cond.): Handel, Messiah (Argo 1976)
Christmas music! Tired of carols, no matter who's singing? I've concluded that I could put any of Handel's oratorios on the stereo and it would be accepted as Christmas music. But, in its way, Messiah really is about Christmas. And, if you're like me, you really only know the Hallelujah chorus. This holiday season, I played this disc a few times and got a positive response from everyone who heard it. Marriner's version is relatively unique in performing the earliest known edition, from 1743, with an orchestra and chorus of the size used by Handel. The score was significantly revised, but since this is first time I've actually paid attention to Messiah, I can't say I heard the differences. Maybe when I play it with a different conductor next year.

Pink Floyd: Meddle (Harvest 1971)
One of the last Floyd albums I got to know, and it pretty well encapsulates both the band and my feelings about them: much of this is great (the 26 minutes of the title track, and the opening cut, "One of These Days"), a chunk of it is simply dull, and there's one total dud (the howling dog with blues guitar of "Seamus"). For those who admire the classic band and their multi-platinum concept albums, one can hear (in retrospect) all of their later developments in embryonic form. In fact, some of the music for Dark Side of the Moon was adapted from early versions of "Meddle." As always, the vocals are a weak spot. But that David Gilmour is one heck of a guitarist.

Fleetwood Mac: Kiln House (Reprise 1970)
When this was new there was no Internet and radio was either top-40 (current pop hits) or FM (cutting-edge and the occasional obscurity). I am not sure that I'd heard Buddy Holly prior to hearing two songs in the film American Graffiti, in 1973. Besides a few Beatles' covers, I'd never heard rockabilly before hearing the opening track to this album, "This Is Rock." And then there's their spot-on performances of "Buddy's Song" and "Hi Ho Silver." All three blew me away, and they haven't lost their charm. They were struggling to find a direction after the departure of their star, Peter Green. Christine McVie had just jointed the group (but has no lead vocal) and they were reaching back into their "roots." The originals are a mixed bag; I like "Earl Gray."

Weather Report: 8:30 (Columbia  1979)
This was playing in my office when someone came by and said, "I knew you were eclectic, but I didn't think you listened to new age." The music happened to be near the end of "The Orphan," one of the four studio tracks that rounds out this live album. Yes, that one's a bit easy listening for me, bland yet lacking the serenity of "In A Silent Way," but otherwise this is a pretty fine record. I never, never listened to this sort of thing in the 1970s, so I'm a bit amazed to learn that they were the biggest draw in jazz in their day. And it hardly need be noted that their monster hit, "Birdland," is my second least favorite track here. Yet, even here, the rhythm section is dynamite.

Eno • Hyde: Someday World (Warp 2014)
Brian Eno's new collaboration with Karl Hyde is swell and I'm glad it's in the world. Aside from the annoying saxophones in the album's opening minutes, I like almost everything about it. But I had to accept it on its own terms, because I didn't expect a record that sounds so very normal. Level of experimentation? Close to zero. Level of weirdness? Very tame by art-rock standards. It climbed pretty high on the "electronic" music charts, but most of it is a standard rock band performing songs with electronic embellishments. Okay, maybe there's a bit of a Steve Reich thing going on throughout (and, for one song, Joy Division). But then there's a heap of soaring choruses, too.

Kate Bush: Hounds of Love (EMI 1985)
It starts with "Running Up That Hill." I'm tempted to stop there, but I'll continue.
Like the Beatles, she abandoned live performance for the studio; in her case, the early albums often had brilliant videos. This record makes more sense on vinyl, where the two sides constitute two distinct musical suites ("Hounds of Love" and "The Ninth Wave"). Side one is the high point of her career: four hit singles that I can listen to over and over again, in part because of their ferocious drumming. Side two, which tells a fractured story, is musically less compelling. Her sudden return to live performance on August 26, inspired me to listen again. And again, almost every day since.

Stevie Wonder: The Definitive Collection (Motown 2002)
Set aside the one or two sentimental crowd-pleasers, and the best of these 21 tracks are a good argument that the 1970s were the golden age of American popular music. (Which is not to ignore the 1960s hits included here!) 15 of these went to Number 1 on the R&B charts, back when it took a lot of vinyl sold to get there. That Wonder's politically-charged funk tunes were so popular is something of a miracle: "Living For The City" was as hard hitting as anything N.W.A. or Tupac Shakur would every produce, but Wonder had the pop smarts to bring it to a broad, broad audience. And like a great crème brûlée, even the pop trifles are fabulous concoctions of voice, rhythm, and arrangement. Case in point: "Boogie On Reggae Woman."

Loudon Wainwright III: Strange Weirdos (Concord 2007)
Wainwright may now be best known for being the father of Rufus Wainwright, and I can only wonder whether the song "Lullaby" is a memory of Rufus, or perhaps daughter Martha. It honestly gives voice to the thought that every parent's had about a child who won't go to sleep: "I'm sick and tired of all of your sob stories ... No more histrionics ... You're a late night faucet that's got a drip." And is that Richard Thompson's guitar supporting him? (Another father with a musician son.) It's followed by a genuine lullaby, the gentle instrumental "Naomi." Parts of this album appear prominently in the soundtrack of the film Knocked Up. The film's use of Wainwright's excellent cover of Peter Blegvad's "Daughter" made this record one of his better sellers, but I'm equally taken with the original songs that knock L.A.

Jennifer Warnes: The Well  (Music Force 2001)
She's more than a one-hit wonder, and has sold millions of records, and yet she's almost totally forgotten except by her fans. Count me among them. This is the last album she released, so I guess it's her swan song (and yet she remains active: she sings with Leonard Cohen on his album of two years ago). It's a generally low-key record, but the beauty of her voice and phrasing and the smart selection of songs bring me back to it often. I'm surprised to admit that the Billy Joel ballad ("And So It Goes") might be the best thing here. The title song is another fine ballad, there's a fine Tom Waits cover, and a stirring cover of Arlo Guthrie's "Patriot's Dream." But the real gem is her duet, with Doyle Bramhall, of the country standard "You Don't Know Me." 

Murray Perahia: Plays Bach Concertos  (Sony 2011)
So much of my work is editing now, and it is hard to do proper editing while listening to music with words. This month, I've become enraptured by this repackaging of Perahia's three discs of his interpretations of Bach's keyboard concertos (understood broadly, since it includes Brandenburg No. 5). This represents quite a shift for me. For a long time, I've listened to Bach on harpsichord, rather than piano. But fidelity to "authentic" sonics can make Bach sound brittle and prissy, and I prefer these works when they're sweeping and lush. The adagio movements are especially fine. Parahia tends to divide listeners into admirers and dismissives; I suppose I'm becoming an admirer. Sadly, this budget-price pack of three discs is now off the market.

Faces: Five Guys Walk into a Bar...  (Rhino 2004)
This is why they make box sets. 67 tracks: many tuneful, many raucous, many sloppy to the point of falling down, many outtakes and live tracks, and the mix of old and new makes them sound like an undiscovered band. I don't have any direct evidence, but I assume that some or all of the four founding members of the Replacements spent as many hours listening to the Faces as I once did. ("Borstal Boys" should have been on an early Replacements album, and any number of these ballads is the model for "Here Comes a Regular.") In short, delete the blues clichés, and this material is the blueprint of the Replacements and any number of post-punk rock and roll. Keep the blues clichés, and there were nights when they were contenders for the best white blues band in the world (assuming your criterion isn't heroic guitar solos).

Linda Thompson: Won't Be Long Now  (Pettifer 2013)
One song here is called "Paddy's Lamentation," but eight or nine of these eleven songs are somebody's lamentation. Both the originals and the traditional songs are pretty bleak stuff. I'm not saying I don't care for her new album. As always, she's a remarkable singer, and the supporting musicians are major stars of British folk music. But I can't exactly warm to it, either. A sea shanty joins tales of misogyny, parental abandonment, the fate of the Irish at the hands of their colonial oppressors; was the set list assembled by an advisor from the Birmingham school of cultural studies? I'll come back to it in the future for two tracks. "If I Were a Bluebird" is a heavenly waltz that was co-written by Ron Sexsmith. "As Fast as My Feet" is a blast of unmitigated joy.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle: Matapédia  (Hannibal 1996)
Much later, we look back, and we come to think of an artistic effort as a "final" work. But that's in retrospect. This is the last studio effort of Kate and Anna McGarrigle. When it was new, it seemed another in the line of their brilliant but sporadic records, and a welcome return to the "folk" soundscape of banjo, accordion, fiddle. Today, I recognize that the emphasis is on regret, childhood memories, and death. "Why Must We DIe" is a case in point. It all comes together in "Goin' Back to Harlan," structurally unusual with its ABCABCCC structure. It took me a long time to realize that it's quite literally a love song to the music of Appalachia: enraptured by the music, Anna asks the classic folk songs to "frail my heart apart."

Roseanne Cash: The Essential Rosanne Cash  (Sony 2011)
A two-disc career overview, with 18 tracks per disc, and her voice is one of the great treasures of American song. Yet if I were to assign them a grade, à la Robert Christgau, I'd give the first disc an A+ and the second disc a C-. And it's no coincidence that the difference is the precise point at which she went from being an interpretive singer to being a singer-songwriter. Among her own songs, only "Black Cadillac" does anything for me.  I'll return to this, but mostly for her work in the 1980s, where exuberance and song craft ("Seven Year Ache"!) trumps her later commitment to earnest self-expression. (On the other hand, the newest song, her duet with Bruce Springsteen, recommends an album of duets from the pair. But it's a cover version, too.)

Television  (Capitol 1992)
Having seen the (not very good) film CBGB, I've been listening to Television. Album three, to be precise. Having more or less memorized the first and second albums, this one still feels relatively fresh to me. Recorded after a fourteen-year hiatus, these ten songs filled a standard album, which means that they'd abandoned long guitar solos. And they'd jettisoned all the production touches of the first albums: no keyboards here. Aside from the occasional catchy chorus, there are few concessions to "pop" music. It's a mesmerizing mesh of twin electric guitars and a tight rhythm section, exploring the range from hushed, sparse interludes to the expected crunch of a "punk" band. Mostly, it's about the guitars.

The Best of Mink DeVille   (EMI 2007)
The music is either under the group name, as here, or (after 1986) as Willy DeVeille. This is the best of the several compilations of the group's music; 20 songs on one disc at a budget price. I saw him live, once, and he has the charm and swagger to move a crowd; little wonder that Mink DeVille was one of the most booked bands at CBGBs in their first years of operation. Yet there is nothing punk or new wave about the music: even when I was buying the albums new, the music was pure retro, as if the set list was drawn from Drifters, Chuck Berry, and Otis Redding songs. Except the songs were mostly originals, and damn fine ones,  "Little Girl" and "I Broke that Promise" among them.

Warren Zevon: The Envoy  (WEA 1982)
You'd think that all topical songs would sound dated after decades pass. Zevon's "The Envoy" just sounds prescient. There he is on the cover, ready for an overseas flight to sort out the situation in the Middle East. And in an era of "Breaking Bad" and hillbilly heroin, there's "Charlie's Medicine."  And Elvis wasn't long dead when Zevon recorded his wistful song about wanting to hear "The King" deliver religious music. Throw in a great novelty song ("The Hula Hula Boys"), one angry rocker ("Ain't that Pretty") and the usual handful of heartbreak songs with gorgeous melodies, and it's one of my three or four favorites by Zevon.

Johnny Boy Would Love This...A Tribute To John Martyn   (Liaison 2011)
Having listened to a few John Martyn albums over the years, I must admit that I never warmed to him. He wrote many wonderful songs, and he was a great guitarist, but his voice sounds like a muffled foghorn and his arrangements were often fussy. Case in point: the original version of "Walk to the Water" never did anything for me. Here, John Smith brings it alive. This is a two disc set, and I prefer disc two, which opens with ten strong cuts, including those of Snow Patrol and Beth Orton. And it ends with Phil Collins, with a performance I admired in advance of knowing who was singing it. On disc one, the Cure's Robert Smith knocks it out of the ballpark.

Andy Irvine and Paul Brady  (Mulligan 1976)
Irvine holds his mandolin in the cover photo. Neither he nor Brady were purists, but this album of traditional Irish music is an approximation of what you might have heard in a Galway pub in the nineteenth century. If you're seeking the definitive version of the story-ballad "Arthur McBride," this is the place: Brady's vocal on that track is the Holy Grail of "folk." Seven minutes of the sweetest music in the world tell the story of a brutal confrontation. In conjunction with "The Jolly Soldier" and "Mary and the Soldier," a theme emerges, and suddenly the line between "folk" and "protest" music vanishes. Irvine's not the singer that Brady is, but he is the key to the instrumentals in 6/8 and 7/8 time, and he provides the mournful hurdy gurdy on "Lough Erne Shore."

What I listened to in 2013

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 


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