What I Listened To In 2005
Neil Young, Prairie Wind, Reprise 2005
I live on the edge of the prairie, just a few hours south of Winnipeg, where Neil Young once lived. I suppose that life in Winnipeg inspired the title of this album. I wish I liked it. I like the cover much better than the music, which makes me yawn. The pre-release hype suggested that it would be another Harvest Moon. Perhaps it's time for old Neil to write a set of songs about something that will inspire him. Trains, perhaps.
Ersel Hickey, The Rockin' Bluebird, Collectibles 2001
The title of this compilation makes no sense unless you know that his biggest hit was "Bluebirds Over the Mountains," and even that was only a minor hit in 1958. Why didn't he ever score a big hit? "Shame on Me" is one of the best rockabilly songs I'd never heard. Was it simply that his style of rockabilly was already becoming old-fashioned? Was it the pompadour? Listening to these twenty tracks today, it's remarkable how much he sounds like Buddy Holly. And his version of the show tune "Some Enchanted Evening" is so weird that it borders on the avant-garde.
Adam Green, Gemstones, Rough Trade 2005
Remember the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes? I imagine that, were Calvin to grow up and become a musician, this is how his music would sound. By the way, that's a compliment. Brash, questioning, sometimes annoying. Simultaneously in-your-face and charming. And smart. Very smart. Remember how Calvin used to build corpses instead of snowmen? As a lyricist, Green is in similar company. Which vulgarity will catch you off guard or, repeated as a chorus, will provoke and amuse? The music is off-kilter, too. Broadway show tunes collide with snatches of folk and rock'n'roll. The result is much closer to Phil Ochs than Jonathan Richman.
Jimmy Reed, The Very Best of Jimmy Reed, Rhino 2000
Pure groove. Reed isn't that great a vocalist (he's no Muddy Waters). He isn't a great guitarist (he's no B.B. King). A number of his songs are well known -- I'm sure I know a half dozen cover versions of "Baby What You Want Me to Do" -- yet most of them sound just like all the rest. But every performance has the same relaxed, mid-tempo propulsive groove, like traveling down the freeway on cruise control on a summer day.
Sly & The Family Stone, There's a Riot Goin' On, Epic 1971
A remastered CD is finally available. Be sure to avoid the older ones, which lack the "American flag" cover photo and which sound dreadful. I realized that for four months now, I have played this album more times than any other that I own. The sound of the record is unique. The music is all groove and pulse, and even the "fast" tracks are relatively slow. All of the instruments sound muffled and distant. In sharp contrast, Sly's vocals are out front, in vivid close-up, and they often sound like a man huddled under a blanket, muttering to himself. "Thank You For Talkin To Me Africa" is astounding -- Sly's old hit, "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," but this time, with malice.
Chad VanGaalen, Infiniheart, Sub Pop 2005
He sits in his bedroom in Calgary and records immaculate songs of heartbreak. Winter conditions in Calgary encourage this sort of thing (and Chad's photo on the back of the CD shows him outside in the dead of winter, in a setting that could be down the street from my house). Most of the songs employ very simple acoustic guitar and light washes of synthesizer, with his angelic voice floating on top. Some of the lyrics try too hard to be deep. Some are simply absurd: "I'd like to build us a home in a tree." Much of it recalls Neil Young, the Neil of "I Am A Child." Case in point: "I Miss You Like I Miss You."
David Ackles, American Gothic, Elektra 1972
Today it suddenly feels like autumn, so I put on this, a decidedly autumnal album. By turns restrained and then theatrical, the sound is piano, light orchestration, Ackles' meaty voice, and occasional supporting voices. It's as if Rodgers and Hart created a musical adaptation of Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson's 1919 short story collection), or Edgar Lee Masters' 1916 poetry collection, Spoon River Anthology. If those references mean nothing to you, think Randy Newman with more empathy and less irony. The tale of Billy Whitecloud could be a century old, or a contemporary news story.
Patti Smith, trampin', Columbia/Sony 2004
The new songs are strong and her singing is better than ever. The quintet plays with confidence and Jay Dee Daugherty remains one of my favorite drummers. "Gandhi" evokes passages from her earliest albums, particularly the title tracks of both Horses and Easter. But a problem confronts me every time I get to this album's closing song, "trampin'," the melody of which strongly recalls the hymn "Bringing in the Sheaves." The simple piano accompaniment is perfect for Smith's voice. But it calls attention to the empty hole in the sonic middle range of the rest of her music, a space previously filled by the piano of Richard Sohl.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, EMI America 1972/Expanded edition 2002
"Take it, Vassar," says a voice, and a flurry of violin jump-starts a tune. Vassar Clemens died a few days ago. In the era before compact discs and digital downloads, these three vinyl discs were my initiation into "country" music. Vassar Clemens played with all the flash and fire that I associated with rock music. Listening to him here, I got my introduction to Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and other great musicians representing three generations of quintessentially American music. My favorite moment is when Vassar drops a few bars of the "Dragnet" TV theme into "Orange Blossom Special."
John Cale, HoboSapiens, Or Music/EMI 2003
The title refers to the overall theme of geographic and cultural displacement. "Things" is not so interesting that it merits its appearance in two versions, but otherwise Cale offers a baker's dozen of drum loops, electronic samples, found sounds, and his dour voice, which has deepened slightly with age. The songs are often built up from musical fragments, with numerous well-integrated incorporations of "world music" (the supporting vocals on "Reading My Mind," the nagging acoustic guitars of "Letters From Abroad"). Best of all is "Magritte," about the transforming power of art. How can the world remain the same "after we saw Magritte"?
Woody Guthrie, Dust Bowl Ballads, RCA Victor 1940, Buddha Records expanded edition 2000
I bought a Woody Guthrie album when I was a college freshman. I hated it. This famous collection of ballads ("ballad" in the old sense of the term, meaning a song that tells a story) has the same rudimentary guitar and rough vocals. So I can understand it when others prefer to admire the legend while listening to something else, such as Springsteen's recent Devils and Dust. But now I prefer the sources over the derivations. As with Walker Evans's or Dorothea Lange's photographs of the same time and place, what is emotionally gripping need be neither pretty nor easy.
Joan Baez, Any Day Now, Vanguard 1968
Consisting of 16 songs written by Bob Dylan, this album is hard to find on compact disc. That's because Vanguard prefers to push the 20-song compilation Vanguard Sessions: Baez Sings Dylan, which cuts two songs from this album and adds five from other albums. Any Day Now is superior, both because there is a consistency of sound --Baez recorded it in Nashville, using many of the same musicians that Dylan used on his three great Nashville albums-- and it features her version of "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," on which Ken Buttrey's drumming is transplendent.
Olivier Messiaen, Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps, Deutsche Grammophon 2000
I purchased this recording after reading an account of the music's composition in a German camp, Stalag VIII A, during World War II. I played this "Quartet for the End of Time" quite a lot in late September, 2001. I pulled it out and played it again following the terrorist bombings of London earlier this month. All good music suspends time by enveloping the listener in a time of its own. This music suspends time musically, and Messiaen thus asks us to meditate on the end of time. For fifty minutes, the most abstract of arts presents an abstract idea: the heavenly stillness after life.
k. d. lang, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, Nonesuch 2004
Although I own most of her albums, I am hardly a k.d. lang fan. Too much of her recording career is strongly derivative of singers she admires, and/or sung with a knowing wink of condescension. Yet I adore this quiet album of "cover" versions of songs by Canadians. A few of them are a bit too obvious (Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush"), but she consistently wins me over with the beauty and intelligence of her singing. My only criticism is that there are only eleven songs. Ron Sexsmith deserves at least another song, and something more obscure by Leonard Cohen would be welcome.
Neil Young, Time Fades Away, Reprise 1973
The cover photograph was recreated as a passing moment in Almost Famous, a film set in the days when these live recordings were released. Following Young's Harvest album, these performances were once thought raw, ugly, and noncommercial. I've been playing it in the car for the last two weeks. So far, no one has objected. In fact, the lack of polish invites everyone to sing along, off-key. Listen beyond Young's raw guitar and you'll hear Young's interplay with Ben Keith's piercing pedal steel guitar and Jack Nitzsche's rolling piano.
Free, Best of Free, A&M 1973
The Blues, 1970's British style, which means it's pronounced "De Blooze," and which also means that I ignored it for more than twenty years. I was only familiar with the hit, "All Right Now," which is far more aggressive than anything else here. Avoiding cover versions, Free specialized in rambling, intense songs and tasteful musicianship that's refreshing for its refusal to pander. Seldom in a hurry, the basic quartet played with silence as well as sound. Another "best of" collection has replaced this one in the marketplace, but this one has "The Hunter."
Nina Simone, Gifted and Black, Canyon 1970
Deeply soulful. Available on compact disc in various budget reissues (I got my copy for 50 cents), this live concert impresses me more than anything else I've heard this year. "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" feature sparse arrangements that put her voice out front, making her sound equally powerful and intimate. I've always thought of her as a jazz singer, but that simply calls attention to the inadequacy of our categories. If she has a category, she shares it with Aretha Franklin, not Ella Fitzgerald.
Sonny Rollins, The Quartet featuring Jim Hall, RCA/Bluebird 1986
I know, I know, he's a mercurial bop virtuoso. But there's so much more. I pulled this out to hear while reading Stanley Crouch's recent profile of Rollins in The New Yorker. It's the sessions for his famous 1962 album, The Bridge, together with the rest of his studio work from 1962-1964. What struck me was his evident delight in rhythm and melody. What struck me even more was the guitar of Jim Hall, whom Rollins plucked from obscurity to accompany his comeback after a long sabbatical. Like most musicians, Rollins thrives when he has a musical foil.
Spring 2005 - ON LEAVE
Mark Vidler, GoHomeProductions, Online mp3 downloads
When Jacques Attali predicted the future of music, he predicted that the over-supply ("stockpiling") of commercial music would be the starting point for a new music. This new activity would overturn the specialized roles (composer, performer, audience) that dominated all previous music. Well, here it is: the mash-up. The music of one record is stripped of its vocal, the vocal of another is stripped of its music, and one is laid atop the other. Sometimes silly, sometimes scary. Christina Aguilera and the Velvet Underground! It's as if Nico were still there for Loaded. http://www.gohomeproductions.co.uk/mp3.html
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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