What I Listened To in 2008
The Mavericks: The Definitive Collection (MCA 2004)
Looking back over the year, I realize that the disc that I played the most was this collection of 20 songs from The Mavericks. The only song that got old was their cover of Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'," which seems too obvious a choice and then remains too close to the original to add anything to the song. Otherwise, there are a dozen tracks here that never seem to bore me, among them "There Goes My Heart," "Dance the Night Away," and the Springsteen cover, "All That Heaven Will Allow." Another favorite is "Here Comes the Rain," first released in 1995. The chorus (and guitar riff) is Van Morrison's "Here Comes the Night," slightly altered so that they can keep the royalties.
Captain Beefheart: Unconditionally Guaranteed (Mercury 1974)
It's interesting, now and then, to seek out the music that fans tell you to avoid. Since the day of its release, this album has been attacked as a low point in the Captain's career -- he's said as much himself. While it lacks the rude cacophony and spirit of anarchy that attracts noise lovers to Beefheart, it's just wrong that "difficult" is synonymous with "better." I think that half of the songs here are brilliant, especially "Peaches" and "New Electric Ride." And compared to almost any other record released in 1974, this IS a rude cacophony. The rhythms have been regularized and he even tries to croon in a place or two, but the results are still closer to punk than Frank Sinatra.
Delany and Bonnie and Friends: Motel Shot (Atco 1971)
That's a motel room number on the album cover, and the concept, adopted by Jackson Browne for Running on Empty, is that we're hearing the music that the musicians make with each other when they're touring, but for each other, not for an audience. It's half blues, half gospel, and it all makes me feel good. The music is dominated by the acoustic guitar of Duane Allman and the piano of Leon Russell -- and there's at least one song with Eric Clapton. In other words, it's Derek and the Dominos unplugged. And if you're a Gram Parsons fan, you'll want it for his version (singing with Bonnie Bramlett) of "Rock of Ages."
Andreas Staier: Joseph Haydn: Piano Concertos (Harmonia Mundi 2005)
Election day, 2008, and I'm killing time in the office on a beautiful fall afternoon, waiting until it's late enough to make it worthwhile to take a look at the television news. After what has seemed an increasingly ugly election and a foul mood of division, Haydn offers me a dose of civilization. Sure, Haydn has a prankster mode, but it's such an urbane wit. His music is always a soothing reminder that, whatever the outcome of the election, we are not condemned to anti-intellectualism. This recording uses a period pianoforte (not a modern piano), giving the faster movements a wonderful lightness.
Earth: The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull (Southern Lord 2008)
An hour of droning instrumental music, featuring non-member Bill Frisell's guitar on two tracks. Generally slow and stately, like a soundtrack for the grinding of tectonic plates. Then, from time to time, the piano lightens the mood. I've seen their music described as psychedelic. It's not very. And as heavy metal. Sorry, but big fat guitar sounds do not mean it's heavy metal. I recognize some of the lumbering pace of early Black Sabbath, but what I hear most of all is progressive rock: it's a distant cousin of King Crimson (circa Red) in their more conventional moments.
Neutral Milk Hotel: In The Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge 1998)
Here's another of those records that has a strong reputation but that leaves me cold. If your musical background is limited, I suppose you might find the music interesting. I just find it tediously derivative. Some of the horn arrangements remind me of Van Dyke Parks, the vocals remind me of both Phil Ochs and Jonathan Richman, and there's a general feeling of strident self-importance. "Holland 1945" is the only song that sticks with me. Not coincidentally, it's got the most coherent lyric of the lot. Anyone who's impressed by this would be better off with Phil Ochs' Pleasures of the Harbor (1967).
Grateful Dead: Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings (Grateful Dead Records 2005)
Four shows recorded with 16 track high fidelity over four consecutive nights in early 1969, these tapes gave us the superlative Live/Dead (still one of the best live albums ever released). Pressed in a limited edition, you can still buy a 3 disc version, or buy these 10 discs used for something like $75 per disc. Or you can hear it all free, in lower fidelity, online here. What you'll hear is a band that wasn't always in tune, that played some sloppy blues and R&B, and that began to hit its stride with four extended explorations of their psychedelic gem, "Dark Star." For me, most of the pleasure is the interplay of Garcia's guitar and Lesh's bass. 9/29/08
P J Harvey: White Chalk (Island 2007)
Evidently, I'm missing something with this one. Critics and reviewers are endorsing it, but to these (jaded?) ears it's her least interesting record. Sure, she learned to play the piano and it's heavily featured, but unfortunately it sounds like someone who hasn't played the piano much. For some reason, she's chosen to sing these songs at the very top of her register, and the strain of her voice is relentlessly grating. It aspires to the chilly ambience of Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out The Lights, but here there's nothing to bring me back to the music. And songs without interesting music are just barely songs. Having played it about ten times, I doubt I will again.
Devendra Banhart: Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (XL Recordings 2007)
This project has a mellow, late 1960s feel to it, but with a bit more humor than I associate with blissed-out hippies. "Shabop Shalom" is the song that really got me into Banhart's peculiar groove. Setting aside the actual lyrics, the opening acoustic music and spoken words strongly recall Donovan's hippie anthem, "Atlantis," but then it suddenly goes to a 1950s doo-wop tune (teasingly quoting "Who Wrote the Book of Love," here identified as the Dead Sea Scrolls), but with a crooning lead vocal borrowed from Bing Crosby. Now that I listen again, "Bad Girl" plays around with a similar dynamic. Banhart is a genius at arranging. And who can resist a good samba, or three?
Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out The Lights (Hannibal 1982)
I listened to this album twice while doing some chores and now the chorus of "Wall of Death" keeps playing in my head. Comparing life choices with a series of carnival attractions, it's one of Richard Thompson's signature songs: a seemingly uplifting melody and rhythm set to lyrics that invite us to celebrate life by contemplating death. Which, more obviously, is the theme of "Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?" From the title song's horrific, building anger to the sweet lull of "Just the Motion," it's about as perfect an album can be. I don't care if it's autobiographical (about their marriage collapsing). I'm just thankful they stayed together long enough to produce it.
Tim Buckley: Blue Afternoon (Straight 1969)
When I was a teenager, this music was too subtle for me. It's certainly blue, but stylistically not exactly the blues. Shopping the other day at a "big box" retail store, I was struck by the huge selection of Jeff Buckley and the complete absence of music by his father, Tim. So much for the judgment of posterity. Yet at the same stage of their (brief) careers, both specialized in a moody anguish and an ability to convey intimacy. Of the two, Tim impresses me more than Jeff. This disc is notable for giving a relatively free hand to Lee Underwood, whose restrained, bluesy guitar gives the whole affair a jazzy flavor.
David Bowie: Heroes (RCA 1977)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Bowie hasn't made an album as good as this one ever again. Well, maybe one, Scary Monsters. What they share in common, besides Bowie, is the presence of Robert Fripp on lead guitar. And one is tempted to say that, because Heroes has more Fripp, it's better. Some of the instrumentals on this album used to strike me as dull, but now I recognize that their surfaces are boring and their backgrounds are mesmerizing. Another odd thing is that all the "rock" songs seem to be piano-based, allowing Fripp to soar, swoop, and rumble without concern for holding things together. Bowie's voice has seldom been used to greater effect. When he goes into a shrill screech, as in the final verse of the title song, it pays off.
John Prine: German Afternoons (Oh Boy 1986)
Easy-going in the extreme, I'm pretty sure that the album title refers to hot summer afternoons spent doing nothing much, getting pleasantly buzzed on cold beer. Hence the song "Out of Love," in which the loss of love is compared to running out of beer. Prine's gentle croak of a voice makes his performances sound unrehearsed and spontaneous, yet he has the uncanny ability to sound as if he's either laughing or crying (or both), depending on the mood of the song. All of which masks the fact that he may well be one of the best songwriters of the past thirty years. Two examples, on this album, both heartbreakers: "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" and "Paradise." Sure, the latter is a remake, but with these bluegrass players, a welcome one.
Carlene Carter: Stronger (Eleven Thirty 2008)
I had no clue, back in the 1970s, that Carlene Carter was the grandchild of one of the founders of country music, Maybelle Carter, or that her mother was June Carter, wife of Johnny Cash. In 1978, she was a New Wave singer associated with Nick Lowe and Graham Parker. (I believe she may be the model for the singer in the novel/film High Fidelity.) Three decades on, her debt to her grandmother and mother is all too obvious. What I love about this record is that it completely undercuts the Romantic ideal of baring one's wounds for art. It's thirteen years since her last record, and in the meantime everyone close to her has died. Instead of giving us a diary of her suffering, she gives us swagger, sweetness, sass. And her nerve: the third track steals the melody of the country classic "Long Black Veil."
Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins: Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love 2006)
I had no clue that Jenny Lewis was the founder of the country-folk band Rilo Kiley when I heard her version of "Handle With Care." Her cover of that Traveling Wilbury's hit was enough to convince me to buy the disc, which is wickedly intelligent and tuneful. The press on Lewis emphasizes her debt to singers like Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, but that doesn't reflect what I hear. Both her singing and songwriting borrow more from Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello, in all the best ways. The title song, for example, is a shaggy-dog story along the lines of Dylan's "Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," and she sings on Costello's 2008 album (which compares unfavorably to hers). The Watson Twins supply harmonies, in case you were wondering.
Marti Jones: Unsophisticated Time (A&M 1985)
It's been a cold, overcast spring. Fresh green leaves only appeared on the trees a few days ago. Today, however, it's blue skies and a feeling of warmth, so I've been playing a record that matches the mood of the day. This LP, her solo debut, was the first in a string of superb albums that combine her wonderful voice with great songs, cleverly arranged. None of which sold many copies. "Talk To Me" is built on a chassis of the Zombies' "Time of the Season," and "The Element Within Her" opens with muted keyboards that mix Chopin and Bach before launching into a taunting string of "la la la." It's one of the best covers of an Elvis Costello ever recorded, and makes me wish she'd done an LP of his songs.
Cat Power: Jukebox (Matador 2008)
Moody, moody cover versions of an intelligent selection of songs. She's not a great singer when measured by vocal chops, but she's developed a soulful and bluesy drawl that lets her convey both intimacy and passion. Although she doesn't sound much like Billie Holiday, the presence of Holiday's "Don't Explain" suggests one source of her style. "New York, New York" is the most surprising transformation, its big band swing replaced with laid-back Memphis groove. Bob Dylan's "I Believe in You" has a backing track that sounds like the Rolling Stones in 1972. It's followed by one of her own songs, a devotional confession to Dylan, "Song to Bobby." For me, the highlight is "Aretha, Sing One For Me," George Jackson's ode to the healing power of music.
Eroica Trio: Ravel: Piano Trio (EMI 1997)
Last night as we drove to a chamber music recital in falling snow, we debated whether we were driving in a blizzard or merely in a storm. Officially, there wasn't enough wind to qualify as a blizzard. In any case, the reason to travel in bad weather was a performance of Ravel's Trio for piano, cello, and violin. The last two movements are among my favorite compositions. There's nothing wrong with the first two movements --they're classic, playful Ravel-- but the slow third movement utilizes the pianist's left hand to establish a sense of foreboding, and the fourth movement ends things animé, that is, with joyous animation. The Eroica Trio highlights George Gershwin's obvious debt to this piece by preceding it with his three preludes.
Van Morrison: Saint Dominic's Preview (Warner Bros 1972)
The album feels like a thrown-together hodge-podge, with a casual blues number ("I Will Be There") and a two-verse song fragment ("Redwood Tree") interspersed with three of his greatest songs ("Jackie Wilson Said," "Listen to the Lion," and "Almost Independence Day"). Which is why it's so charming, and so utterly typical of Morrison. The R&B material swings, the arrangements are compelling--including some very subtle and intelligent use of early synthesizer--and he's in great voice. Arguably, the two long tracks ("Lion" and "Independence Day") are his two greatest studio performances. And, for me, "Almost Independence Day" reminds me of the time, on Independence Day, when it was on the radio as we drove along the San Francisco Bay, lyric synchronized with reality.
Various Artists: A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (Nonesuch 2007)
One "tribute" album leads to another. The cover of this one sets the stage: it's a little too reverential, as if she were dead and candidate for sainthood. Luckily, a few of the singers understand that the goal is not to sound like the object of veneration, but, rather, to acknowledge inspiration. Thus, I recommend the approaches taken by Sufjan Stevens and Björk to "A Free Man in Paris" and "The Boho Dance," respectively. Stevens opens with a stirring blast of synthesized horns that's more vigorous than anything else on the whole album. And Björk is, well, Björk. These are, not coincidentally, the two opening tracks. After that, things get a bit too serious, with everyone sticking closely to Mitchell's own arrangements. Not that they're bad ones.
Various Artists: Return of the Grievous Angel (Almo 1999)
This album has a subtitle: "a tribute to Gram Parsons." I love Parsons' music with the Byrds and then the Flying Burrito Brothers, but his two solo albums have always struck me as something of a mixed bag. This project is another in a parade of acts of remembrance by Emmylou Harris, his duet partner on the solo albums. She does not, however, steal the show. In fact, her harmonizing with Beck on "Sin CIty" is the weakest thing here -- not because of Emmylou, but because Beck doesn't have the vocal chops for it. Otherwise, it's musical bliss. Assuming, of course, that country rock is your means to bliss. Dare I say that the Mavericks cover of "Hot Burrito #1" is the definitive version? And Evan Dando is an amazing choice for "$1,000 Wedding."
Trees: On the Shore (Columbia 1970; Sony expanded CD 2007)
Don't ever, ever judge a record by its cover. The cover of the Trees' second album is gorgeous. It's the work of the design team Hipgnosis, who did similar great things for Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Unfortunately, cover art is the only reason anyone will ever use the terms "Hipgnosis," "Pink Floyd" and "Led Zeppelin" together in a sentence. The music is standard British folk-rock of the period, with electric guitar juxtaposed against acoustic elements (think of Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven"). Celia Humphris has a pleasant voice, but the moment she stops singing, tedium sets in. Ten minutes of "Sally Free and Easy" is about seven minutes too many. It's now available in an even longer version, the opposite of what's needed.
Amy Winehouse: Back to Black (Republic 2006)
I find more humor in the "Parental Advisory" label on the cover than in the actual songs. I can't imagine anyone young enough to need parental advisement who'd want to hear this second-hand R&B. But maybe I'm wrong. For the most part, I'm left cold by her obvious debt to Billie Holiday, a comparison that reminds me that Holiday always did interesting things with rhythm and melody. Take away Winehouse's occasional way with a lyric and the actual music is extremely dull (especially the horn charts). The one delight is "Rehab," where the interplay of piano and horns keeps me engaged until we get to the sing-a-long of "They try to make me go to rehab, I say no, no, no," which is no longer funny now that she's in rehab.
Booker T & the MGs: McLemore Avenue (Stax 1969)
Ignore how ugly the cover is and you realize that it's another in a long line of parodies of the Beatles' Abbey Road cover. Except that this one's special. It was the first, and with good reason: Booker T & the MGs, soul band extraordinaire, play the Abbey Road album more or less straight through. Note the year of release: they put out this album within months of the Beatles' release. It's almost but not quite an instrumental album, with Booker T's organ as the lead instrument. There are a few dull passages, but the overall effect is funkier and more playful than the Beatles. I've always thought that stretches of the original album were ruined by inane lyrics; without them, there's just the pleasure of the musical flow. One regret: they skip "Her Majesty."
David Johansen: Live It Up (Blue Sky 1982, Razor & Tie CD 1992)
Between the sloppy but glorious New York Dolls and the campy slop of alter-ego Buster Poindexter, David Johansen tried to carve out a career as a standard rock and roll singer. Commercially, it went nowhere. Aesthetically, it was guitar-rich, heart-on-your-sleeve arena rock. I enjoy it immensely as I sit in my office and fill out boring paperwork. This live set list offers a few Dolls songs, the best stuff from his solo debut, and some very well-chosen covers of major 1960s AM radio hits. In this format, anyone who doesn't know the sources will have trouble telling the difference. "Build Me Up Buttercup" and "Bohemian Love Pad" are the fun throwaways. The surprise is the weight he gives to "Is This What I Get For Loving You?" -- but it's hard to go wrong with a Goffin-King hit. And who can resist "Frenchette"?
Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs: Under the Covers, Vol. 1 (Shout! Factory 2006)
This belongs to that distinct genre of records known as the covers album. Someone "covers" a collection of songs they admire. This one is odd. They've selected a great batch of songs from the roughly 1965-1971, yet I don't know that I recommend it. Sweet and Hoffs have distinctive, recognizable voices. But half the fun of the genre is to hear the music rearranged, and here the arrangements slavishly copy the originals, as if they peeled Nico's voice off the Velvet Underground's recording of "Sunday Morning" and then overdubbed Hoffs' voice. And the same goes for the Who's "The Kids Are Alright," and so on with the rest. The one exception, and thus the one treat, is "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," where they devise delightful, original harmony parts.
Nick Lowe: At My Age (Yep Roc Records 2007)
I've always resisted compiling a "10-best" list for the year as it ends. But if I did construct one for 2007, I'd likely put this album on my list. Lowe had the nerve to call his first solo album Jesus of Cool (a title that didn't survive the Atlantic crossing). If anything has become cool, it's the music itself. The arrangements favor touches of country music (the piano and guitar of the opening track, "A Better Man," the shuffle of "Long Limbed Girl"), but it's all been mixed smooth in a blender with the mariachi horns (on "The Club" -- think "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash) and cool jazz ("Other Side of the Coin"). The songwriting is stellar. Best of all is the faked misogyny of "I Trained Her to Love Me," which has the bite of the best Randy Newman songs.
All text © 2008 Theodore Gracyk
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