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Albums of the Year: 2011

December 27th, 2011 6 comments

With Christmas out of the way, and the year almost over, it’s time I finally get around to compiling my Top 20 albums of the year of 2011 (in fact, there are 21 entries). Each album is represented on the mix with a song, and each entry has a link to the artist’s homepage or other outlet where the album can be ordered from. Because this list is intended not only to show off my impeccable taste, but also to showcase artists, all data files in the mix have been downscaled to 128kbps. This is not really a chart, but we’ll be counting down from roughly 20th to first. Other than the top 5, all rankings have a margin of error of a couple of places. The playlist of the mix counts up, from #1 to #21.

21. Michael Kiwanuka – Tell Me A Tale EP
This is supposed to be a Top 20 of albums, but I am breaking a rule by making it 21 and including this three-track EP. If Michael Kiwanuka’s debut, due for 2012, includes just three tracks as good as those on this EP, it will be a contender for next year’s list. The Ugandan-born, British-based  singer recalls the sounds of mid-’70s soul, with flutes, strings and rhythm guitar, and lovely melodies. And still, the sound is contemporary, with a jazz saxophone getting all funky on lead track Tell Me A Tale. Homepage
Michael Kiwanuka – I Need Your Company

20. Maria Taylor – Overlook
It is been a while since Taylor’s great debut albums, 11:11 and Lynn Teeter Flower, both of which were consistently excellent. Overlook is more like an old friend coming to visit; at first, the conversation is animated and a little exciting, then you settle down on the couch with a bottle of wine and just enjoy each other’s company, even if the level of communication is more comfortable than inspiring. In this way, Maria Taylor is a most welcome visitor. HOMEPAGE
Maria Taylor – Happenstance

19. Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion – Bright Examples
Arlo’s daughter (and therefore Woody’s granddaughter) and her husband channel Fleetwood Mac, The Magic Numbers and a dash of Emmylou Harris on their second country-folk album. This is by no means edgy stuff, but it’s pretty much perfect over a cup of strongly brewed coffee on a Sunday morning. And sometimes that all we can ask of music. BUY ALBUM
Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion – Seven Sisters

18. Säkert! – På Engelska
Or otherwise known as Hello Saferide. It’s a bit confusing: Swedish singer Annika Norlin is otherwise better known by the moniker Hello Saferide, by which she became something of an indie darling a few years ago. In 2007 and again in 2010 she recorded Swedish-language albums as Säkert! (which apparently is Swedish for “yeah, right”), selected tracks of which she then re-recorded in English, maintaining the Säkert! name. And just to mess with us, and rob the album of any commercial prospect, the album’s title is rendered in Swedish. It has no tracks as instantly catchy as The Quiz or High School Stalker, but this is an engaging set, with Norlin’s personality and appealingly idiosyncratic lyrics the real star. HOMEPAGE
Säkert!  – The Lakes We Skate On

17. Lori McKenna – Lorraine
Lori McKenna is better known as a songwriter for the likes of Alison Krauss, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Faith Hill than she is as a performer. That’s a shame, because her performance is preferable to the corporate gloss of a LeeAnne Rimes. The strength here reside in McKenna’s emotional honesty as she introspects on her life and relationships (touchingly also with her late mother, also named Lorraine). BUY ALBUM
Lori McKenna – You Get A Love Song

16. Ralph Stanley – A Mother’s Prayer
Some 64 years after making his first record, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley releases an album of Christian music that will make even the most hardened atheists wish, at least momentarily, that they had religion. His once smooth but now worn octogenarian voice might betray Stanley’s age, but he has the confidence to do four of the present 14 tracks a cappella style, including a rousing version of Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘John The Revelator’. HOMEPAGE
Ralph Stanley – I’ll Not Be Afraid

15. OK Sweetheart – Home
One of two self-released albums in this lot, which suggests that there is much talent that is going unrecognised. Thank goodness for the Internet, through which fans can spread the word. So I got to hear of OK Sweetheart – the moniker singer Erin Austin operates under – and this very lovely debut album, which calls to mind Regina Spektor in a calm mood. HOMEPAGE
OK Sweetheart – We’ve Got Love

14. Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer
After a dozen beautifully crafted albums, the acclaim awarded by the likes of Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Michael Bublé (hey, you would take it), and a memorable surname, the Canadian singer still is no superstar. Long Player Late Bloomer won’t change the injustice, even if it is another quite excellent album. Here Sexsmith scores his mostly downbeat lyrics with upbeat guitar, keyboard and strings, all gorgeously arranged. Sexsmith has an extraordinary warm sound (and, indeed, warm voice), which provides for a most welcome antidote to the autotuned stylings of current mainstream pop. BUY ALBUM (incl. special editions)
Ron Sexsmith – Michael And His Dad

13. Death Cab For Cutie – Codes And Keys
There’s nothing new here; Death Cab pretty much do what they’ve been doing since 2003’s excellent Transatlanticism (and Underneath The Sycamore sounds to me a bit like that album’s New Year), with the layered, textured arrangements and polished production which form little indie-pop symphonies. And like that album, the best track comes right at the end: Stay Young, Go Dancing.  Like the band’s previous three albums, Codes And Keys is best heard through headphones while tuning out, letting the texture of the sounds and Gibbard’s gentle singing cascade over the listener. HOMEPAGE
Death Cab For Cutie – Stay Young, Go Dancing

12. Buddy Miller – The Majestic Silver Strings
It takes two minutes and 10 seconds before the gentle opener Cattle Call launches any vocals. From then, things pick up, with a succession of guest vocalists, including Emmylou Harris, Patti Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Lee Ann Womack, and Miller’s wife Julie. Even Marc Ribot, like Buddy Miller a great session guitarist, chips in on a couple of numbers. And that’s how The Majestic Silver Strings sounds: a great studio romp with friends popping in and out to sing new material and lots of covers of lesser-known songs by country greats such as Lefty Frizzell and George Jones. It’s great fun and musically pleasing, even when the concept fails (cf. Roger Miller’s Dang Me!). And for an album featuring four highly rated session guitarists — Bill Frissell and Greg Leisz also feature – there is a commendable absence of guitar solo wankery. One for those who enjoy the A History of Country series. BUY ALBUM
Buddy Miller feat Julie Miller – God’s Wing’ed Horse

11. The Pierces – Thirteen Tales Of Love And Revenge
You have to love an indie-pop band that can sound vaguely like TLC, as The Pierces did on 2007’s Lights On, and who can riff on the Pet Shop Boys as they did on Boring (“Menage a trois? Boring”), from the same album. On their fourth album they play it a bit more straight – and more commercially viable. The sensibility is here is catchy indie-pop: imagine The Cardigans passing through Nashville (with a nod to The Mamas and the Papas, especially on Kissing You Goodbye). It’s unfailingly engaging. I love the cover design which gives the appearance of a well-worn LP sleeve. HOMEPAGE
The Pierces – Glorious

10. Josh T. Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen
A man of gloomy outlook and plaintive voice, Josh T. Pearson is not likely to cheer you up. There is so much sadness and anger here, Last Of The Country Gentlemen might well be Pearson’s primal whisper. With four of the seven melancholy songs longer than ten minutes, this is an intimidating album. But becoming immersed in it, the genius of this exceptionally powerful set will reveal itself. BUY ALBUM
Josh T. Pearson – Thou Art Loosed

9. Tom Rhodes – Better Son
Screw old the system of musicians being at the arbitrary mercy of record companies; Tom Rhodes sells his self-financed albums on the Internet and at live gigs. His sophomore album of alt.country should by rights sell enough to pay the singer’s bills and more. In sound and in merit, it recalls one of the best albums of 2010, Ryan Bingham’s Junky Star. Bourbon-voiced Rhodes must have had confidence in his set of songs: he keeps the album’s best track, the title number, for the finale.  BUY ALBUM
Tom Rhodes – Better Son

8. Alison Krauss and Union Station – Paper Airplane
It took Alison Krauss seven years to record a new album that didn’t feature grizzled old Robert Plant, and the result feels like a long, warm hug by somebody who really loves you — and you might need that hug after Dan Tyminski’s angry vocals on Dust Bowl Children. Crystal-voiced Krauss and her band of maestros on mandolin, fiddle and banjo offer little that is new, but with such great material performed so beautifully rendered, who needs innovation? HOMEPAGE
Alison Krauss & Union Station – My Opening Farewell

7. Over The Rhine – The Long Surrender
Understated, warm and gorgeously slow-burning, Over The Rhine’s The Long Surrender gets under the listener’s skin with its raw, introspective lyrics delivered by Karen Bergquist in her torchsong-folk voice (from which the overhyped and overrated Adele could learn) to a sensitive but textured production by Joe Henry. The production was funded by fans and supporters of the Cincinnatti group, and alt-country legend Lucinda Williams pops in for two songs. HOMEPAGE
Over The Rhine – Sharpest Blade

6. Amos Lee – The Mission Bell
It’s hard to pin a genre on Amos Lee, but on The Mission Bell he is emphatically in the alt-country camp. Produced by Calexico’s Joey Burns, The Mission Bell channels The Band, without really reaching their depth (as if many ever do), and then descends to the pedestrianism of Jack Johnson. It’s an uneven album, to be sure. But when it works, it is quite impressive. The songs deal with songs of discovery and redemption, and Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson (who provides an elementary maths lesson) drop in for duets. BUY ALBUM
Amos Lee – El Camino

5. Nicole Atkins – Mondo Amore
Nicole Atkins’ excellent 2007 album Neptune City drew from eclectic influences; on Mondo Amore she cast her net even wider and, counter-intuitively, arrives at a more coherent sound. The result is an energising, self-produced album (by force, her former label unaccountably dropped this wonderful talent) which details, with no exaggerated bitterness, her break-up with a boyfriend. On the lovely Hotel Plaster (which might have been a Richard Hawley song), Atkins sings: My pain could learn to play the violin, but it might not bring you back. But at least we’d have a pretty soundtrack.” And that’s just what we got. HOMEPAGE
Nicole Atkins – Cry Cry Cry

4. Zahara – Loliwe
A surprise hit, this is South Africa’s top-selling album of the year. In a musical scene in which her best shot at stardom was to do dance music of vocal jazz, 24-year-old Bulelwa Mkutukana took her acoustic guitar to create a bi-lingual album that references the great South African female singers of past and present – legends such as Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Busi Mhlongo, Letta  Mbulu and, especially, Brenda Fassie, but also contemporaries such as Judith Sephuma and Simphiwe Dana. And yet she manages to sound fresh and entirely relevant. BUY ALBUM
Zahara – Ndize

3. Wilco – The Whole Love
Alas, poor Wilco, you shall never satisfy all your fans. Nobody can say they hate The Whole Love, but lots of people pronounced themselves a little disappointed. These are the hazards of being masters at different styles. On The Whole Love, Wilco offer a duo of opening tracks that should satisfy the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot fans of distorted sounds, and then go on to keep Sky Blue Sky devotees like me happy (and I firmly believe that one day Sky Blue Sky will be regarded as an all-time classic rock album). The sequencing is risky: the first half is not easy to navigate; it takes repeated listens to really appreciate them. The superb Born Alone rings in a series of instantly catchy numbers – but by then the casual listener might have switched off already. BUY ALBUM
Wilco – Born Alone

2. Brandi Carlile – Live At Benaroya Hall
Brandi Carlile should be a massive star, but if she was, she probably would have to make compromises. So it’s just as well that she’s big enough to get Elton John duetting with her on an album, to appear on Austin City Limits and to record a live album with orchestra, but retaining some artistic control. Not having to compromise means having your backing singers perform “the creepiest and most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard” on your live album, and it means that you can close the set with a couple of cover versions. Of those, bloody Hallelujah is so overworked, I can’t work up interest in Carlile’s version; Alphaville’s Forever Young is a surprising choice; nicely executed, but hardly going out on a high note – the set would have climaxed well with the final original, Pride And Joy. The original songs are performed with power where appropriate and restraint when necessary, with barely a dud note. The orchestra adds little to most songs, and on some tracks keeps quiet altogether, but gets going on the two stompers, The Story and – the album’s revelation – Dreams. HOMEPAGE
Brandi Carlile – Dreams

1. Gillian Welch – The Harrow and The Harvest
Gillian Welch’s first album in eight years is mesmerising. It draws the listener into its world of mystery and melancholy, modern Americana and old Appalachian sounds. Welch’s clear and expressive voice, supported by collaborator Dave Rawlings’ close harmonies, glides effortlessly over the lovely sparse arrangements, which pay a respectful tribute to country’s rich legacy. This album is a monument to the majesty of restraint and simplicity. BUY ALBUM
Gillian Welch – Tennessee
Gillian Welch – Hard Times
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Previous Albums of the Year

Albums of the Year: 2009

December 22nd, 2009 7 comments

You can finally exhale: here are my top 20 albums of 2009. Apart from the two top spots, the order is rather random. Ask me in ten minutes’ time, and Grizzly Bear or M. Ward might sit at number 3 and 4. I’ve put sample tracks of each album on a mix; the song titles appear at the end each abstract.

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1. Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter
I didn’t expect Hawley to top his majestic 2005 album Coles Corner. A profoundly soulful pop symphony with accomplished and unusual instrumentation, Truelove’s Gutter may very well be the best album of the decade.
(Open Up Your Door) Homepage

2. Ben Kweller – Changing Horses
Kweller at last finds his sound (changing horses?) with an outstanding country album that provides an antidote to the corporate side of the genre. An absolute joy.
(Gypsy Rose) Homepage

3. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
Wilco are incapable of releasing a bad album. The eponymous album will probably not go down in the band’s history as a classic, but it’s solid quality.
(You And I) Homepage

4. Brandi Carlile – Give Up The Ghost
It took me a few listens to realise just how good an album this Rick Rubin-produced effort is. Stay-At-Home Indie Pop put it better than I could: “Anthemic, brash, cool… the abc of Brandi, and I could go on to devilish, euphoric, fresh but fragile, and beyond (to gargantuan, hoarse-heavenly, incandescent), but all I want to really do is pathetically declare my love.” But will you still do so when Brandi gets that first clutch of Grammys, Indie-Pop? See if you can guess, without googling, with whom Carlile duets on Caroline.
(Caroline) Homepage

5. Farryl Purkiss – Fruitbats & Crows
The South African singer-songwriter dude returns three years after his excellent full debut with rockier effort. Purkiss draws his influences widely but manages to create his own coherent, late night sound.
(Seraphine) Homepage

6. Elvis Perkins – Elvis Perkins In Dearland
Here’s what I wrote earlier this year: Imagine Dylan as an indie artist, but with an appealing voice. There is a bit of an experimental edge to it, which in the wrong mood can be annoying, but exhilarating in the right mood.
(Doomsday) MySpace

7. Prefab Sprout – Let’s Change The World With Music
Released 17 years after it was actually recorded, this is supposed to be Paddy McAloon’s lost masterpiece. It’s not a masterpiece, but a damn good, and very accessible album, on which McAloon is on a bit of a God trip.
(Last Of The Great Romantics) MySpace

8. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Pitchfork calls the New Pornographer “a force of nature”. Hackneyed turns of phrases, even when they intend to pun on an album title, sometimes are just the most appropriate. Case is so much a force of nature that listening to the album can leave the listener exhausted.
(People Got A Lotta Nerve) Homepage

9. Monsters of Folk – Homework
I should love this. Two Bright Eyes guys, M. Ward and the singer of My Morning Jacket, and a batch of very good songs. It’s a fine album, and yet it fills me with a sense of unease, the same vibe I got from the Travelin’ Wilburys (and one song here sounds like a Wilburys track!). And yet, I keep returning to Homework
(Man Named Truth) Homepage

10. Peasant – On The Ground
This deserved more of a buzz. Nicely crafted guy-with-guitar stuff that recalls Joshua Radin and, yeah, Elliot Smith, with a bit of Simon & Garfunkel. A lovely cool-down album.
(Fine Is Fine) MySpace

11. Eels – Hombre Lobo
E offers nothing much new here, but, hey, it’s an Eels album, and does everything you want an Eels album to do. That’s enough for me.
(That Look You Give That Guy) Homepage

12. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Beguiling and frequently surprising. It’s an aural extravaganza. Now, which Ben Folds does Two Weeks borrow its riff from?
(Two Weeks) MySpace

13. Mindy Smith – Stupid Love
Indie-Pop may be in love with Brandi Carlile; I declare my (admittedly promiscuous) love for the likewise deceptively named Mindy Smith. Stupid Love, it must be said, is not as breathtaking an album as Mindy’s debut, One Moment More, but it has Mindy’s beautiful voice and pleasant enough songs.
(What Went Wrong) Homepage

14. Bob Evans – Goodnight Bull Creek
I’m a great fan of Evans’ 2006 sophomore album, Suburban Songs. Like that set, Goodnight Bull Creek was recorded in Nashville. Creek lacks the immediately catchy songs of the previous album, but has a much richer, textured production.
(Brother, O Brother) Homepage

15. Jason Paul Johnston – Willows Motel
Solid country, recalling Prine rather than Twitty. And just when I think Johnstone has settled into predictable country mode, he pulls something that makes me think, “What the fuck was that?”
(She’s A Friend) MySpace

16. Marissa Nadler – Little Hells
Again, to quote myself: I am not acquainted with Nadler’s previous effort; apparently it is gloomier than Little Hells. Well, this one isn’t a courtjesters’ convention of heedless madcappery either. It is, however, a beautiful, hypnotic album which draws much of its inspiration from medieval, cloistered sounds.
(Rosary) Homepage.

17. M. Ward – Hold Time
Here Ward draws from the heritage of country and soul, from the Beach Boys and from Spector — the choice of two covers affirm the retro vibe: an excellent cover of Buddy Holly’s Rave On, a less than brilliant rendition of Hank Williams’ Oh Lonesome Me (featuring Hank Sr’s namesake Lucinda). The production is polished, the sound a lot more mainstream than previous albums
(Rave On) Homepage

18. Loney, Dear – Dear John
Our Swedish homestudio-bound genius returns with another magical multi-layered chamber-pop epic which is at once orchestral and, largely thanks to the man’s voice, intimate.
(Airport Surroundings) Homepage

19. Micah P Hinson – All Dressed Up And Smelling Of Strangers
I am not a big fan over covers albums. Usually they are self-conscious about doing something “different” with a song, or issue redundant carbon copies. Cover albums work when the performer is idiosyncratic, so unique that he or she need not try to make a song sound differently. Johnny Cash pulled it off; and for the most part Hinson does so here, where he takes on the likes of Sinatra (My Way, the ambitious fucker!), Leadbelly, Holly, Dylan, Beatles and John Denver, armed mostly only with his trusty guitar and croaking voice.
(This Old Guitar) Homepage

20. Laura Gibson – Beasts of Seasons
Pitchfork nailed it when their reviewer called the singer-songwriter  Gibson’s music as “far better suited to a fireplace and a cup of warm apple cider than to your local Starbucks”. Beasts of Seasons is bleak and beautiful.
(Funeral Song) MySpace

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More Albums of the Year

Albums of the Year: 2007

December 15th, 2009 No comments

This is the final part of the series of my favourite top ten albums of every year through the ’00s. And to celebrate it, I accidentally wrote 11 reviews. So these are a top 11 then. There is still a link up to my top 20 albums of 2008, which covers that year, and I’ll post a similar mix of my top 20 for 2009 once I have decided which they are. As before, I’m sad to leave out some fine albums from ’07, including efforts by Josh Ritter, Kate Walsh, Laura Gibson, Rilo Kiley, Jens Lekman, Maria Taylor, Rickie Lee Jones, Feist, Billie the Vision & the Dancers, A Fine Frenzy, The National, Brooke Fraser, Foo Fighters, Over The Rhine, Andrew Bird, Josh Rouse, Iron & Wine, Miranda Lambert, Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles, Common, Tim McGraw, The Shins, Abra Moore…

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Wilco – Sky Blue Sky

The Wilco cognoscenti are rather too ready to dismiss the unpretentious Sky Blue Sky, measuring it against the experimentations of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. This is an uncomplicated album, and does what its creators set out to do admirably. Here, Jeff Tweedy and chums eschew cacophonic innovations for a straight-forward, mellow rock album that channels the ’60s (Dylan, Grateful Dead, Abbey Road-era Beatles) and ’70s (Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Thin Lizzy) without losing its identity as a Wilco album. Sky Blue Sky is immediate and intimate. Nels Cline’s guitar work is an utter joy. The highlight here is Impossible Germany, with Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline duelling on a magnificent guitar solo, an integral part of the song’s lyrics, that borrows from Gary Moore (check out Thin Lizzy’s Sarah) and Carlos Santana.
Wilco – Either Way.mp3
Wilco – Impossible Germany.mp3

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Brandi Carlile – The Story

The name Brandi Carlile suggests a fake-breasted airhead straight outta the Playboy Mansion. As the reader may have guessed by dint of her inclusion on this list, that notion is way of the mark. Carlile is a hugely talented writer and singer of solid rock and country-rock songs. I liked her eponymous 2005 debut, which was rather more rootsy than this set. Here Carlile straddles genres, veering from rock (My Song) to folk-pop (Turpentine) to country (“Have You Ever”). Her distinctive voice can whisper softly and soar ferociously (hear the climactic Joplinesque roar on the title track). The lyrics booklet reveals that Carlile wrote some of the songs as a teenager in 2000 or earlier, hinting at a precocious talent.
Brandi Carlile – The Story.mp3

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Loney, Dear – Loney Noir

The bizzarely named Loney, Dear (real name Emil Svanängen) is something of a genius working in his Stockholm bedroom studio, in which he conducts an orchestra consisting of himself. Operating mostly under the cover of earphones so as not to wake the rest of the household, his songs tend to start softly before building up to a multi-layered, orgasmic crescendo. The melodies are pretty — even twee, in the way Belle & Sebastian are twee — and Svanängen’s high and slight voice is appealing enough, within the context of his music. But I have no idea whether the lyrics are any good; I’ve never really listened to them; I rather have the bedroom symphonies wash over me.
Loney, Dear – Saturday Waits.mp3
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Nicole Atkins – Neptune City

Neptune City came out at a time when Amy Winehouse, another artists borrowing from pop’s rich legacy, was absolutely everywhere. I prefer Atkins’ eclectic references over Winehouse’s mannered soul pastiche. Neptune City is, in places, like Petula Clark covering Blondie through an ABBA filter — glorious pop. On other tracks, Atkins does torchsong soul (“The Way It Is”), or goes into ’80s throwback mode, sounding like the B-52s as sung by Sandie Shaw on Broadway (“Love Surreal” or the rousing “Brooklyn On Fire”, which featured here). Elsewhere there are hints of Phil Spector’s production and Edith Piaf and Joni Mitchell. It should be a total retro mess, but it isn’t. It sounds entirely modern. Neptune City may not be an entirely cohesive album, but it is rather fabulous.
Nicole Atkins – Love Surreal.mp3

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Holmes Brothers – State Of Grace

Some time ago I posted the Holmes’ Brothers gospel-blues style cover of Cheap Trick’s I Want You To Want Me (HERE) from this album. That track was my introduction to the Holmes Brothers, who had released nine albums before this one, starting in 1991 — more than three decades after the two Holmes brothers, Sherman and Wendell, started in the music business. The third member, drummer Popsy Dixon, hooked up with them in the mid-’60s. But they did not become the Holmes Brothers until 1979, having spent the interim as a covers bar-band. Covering blues, soul, gospel, country and even a spot of bluegrass, State Of Grace is warm and often surprising, especially in the Virginian group’s interpretation of other people’s songs, which include tracks by Lyle Lovett (twice), Credence Clearwater Revival, Nick Lowe, Hank Williams Sr and Johnny Mathis. Guesting here with the three brothers are Joan Osborne (who championed the Holmes Brothers in the 1990s), The Band’s Levon Helms and Rosanne Cash. Featured here is the Hank Williams song, featuring Cash.
The Holmes Brothers (with Rosanne Cash) – I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You.mp3

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Panda Bear – Person Pitch

I can’t claim to be much of an Animal Collective fan. I’m sure I would be if I had the patience to get into them. I was not going to have patience either with this solo album by Collective’s drummer Noah Lennox. But I was attracted to it by the cover art and a glowing Pitchfork review. For some reason I ended up playing Person Pitch on loop, and was entranced by it. The critics in their reviews invariably referenced Brian Wilson, and coming a couple of years after SmiLE (another album I got into by playing it on loop) was released, that is neither surprising nor inaccurate. Person Pitch is a glorious psychedelic trip, especially the epic Bros, that owes a tip of the hat also to the Beatles.

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Richard Hawley – Lady’s Bridge

It is this album’s misfortune to be chronologically sandwiched between Hawley’s two masterpieces, 2005’s Coles Corner and this year’s Truelove’s Gutter, two of the decades finest albums. Lady’s Bridge may not quite reach the heights of those masterpieces, but it gets damn close. It is a very, very good album, with no weak point. It is mostly a sad collection. The gorgeous opener, Valentine, will move the vulnerable listener to tears, or close to it, especially when the strings swell and the drums emphasise the anguish. A couple of rockabilly songs and the upbeat Tonight The Streets Are Ours lighten the mood before suitably gloomy (and very lovely) songs called Our Darkness and The Sun Refused To Shine close the set.

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Missy Higgins – On A Clear Night

Where Missy Higgins full debut album The Sound Of White (with its astonishing title track) was mostly plaintive in sound; On A Clear Night is more accessible and upbeat. Higgins invests her intelligent lyrics with evocative vocals. The Sound Of White dealt much with trauma and depression; On A Clear Night is frequently life affirming, talking of escape, healing and self-assertion. Thankfully Higgins’ toned down her distinctive Australian accent which previously came perilously close to making her sound like an Aussie wicketkeeper. This is the kind of album that may at first seem slight, but its depth reveals itself after repeated listens. Crowded House’s Neil Finn makes an appearance on the album, contributing guitar to Peachy and backing vocals to the lovely Going North. That’s what it says on the booklet; I can barely hear the guy.
Missy Higgins – Going North.mp3

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Bright Eyes – Cassadaga

In 2005, Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was by far my album of the year. It was an immediately accessible album in ways its predecessors were not. Cassadaga is not as easy to fall in love with as I’m Wide Awake. It is a grower which requires a few spins before its full beauty reveals itself. Songs that at first do not seem much creep into the ear slowly, and then take root. It is a richly textured, and cohesive album. Connor Oberst’s poetic lyrics are delivered here with greater self-assurance and less of a quiver than on preceding albums. At times, the album overreaches in its ambitions, and another spoken intro on the first track is simply pretentious. For this album Oberst roped in guests such as the marvellous Maria Taylor, Gillian Welch and Rilo Kiley’s Jason Boesel (whose backing vocals on the excellent “If The Brakeman Turns My Way” provide an album highlight).
Bright Eyes – If The Brakeman Turns My Way.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – These Friends Of Mine

Rosie Thomas’ fourth album is her most consistent. It’s for albums like these that the hackneyed phrase “achingly beautiful” was invented for. On These Friends Of Mine, she is supported by her friends Damien Jurado, Denison Witmer and Sufjan Stevens. The lyrical thread running through the album is love and New York, sometimes both together. Recorded as live, the album is engagingly intimate. The sparse, moving “Why Waste More Time?” is preceded by an appealingly giggly count-in. The cover version of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”, nice though it is, seems redundant, but Tomas’ interpretation of Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird” captures the intense delicacy of the original. The highlight, however, is “Much Farther To Go”, a love song in which the arrangement, harmonies and lyrics coalesce to create an evocative hymn to deep yearning (like Nicole Atkins’ Brooklyn’s On Fire, it featured here).
Rosie Thomas – If This City Never Sleeps.mp3

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Colbie Caillat – Coco

Like Lily Allen and Kate Nash before her, Colbie Caillat launched herself into the pop charts on the strength of Internet buzz. Releasing her music first on MySpace, she was soon picked up by the music blog community. Her debut album, titled rather cornily after her childhood nickname, is breezy folk-pop of the sort usually associated, by way of deceptive shorthand, with the rather more boring Jack Johnson. In sound Caillat is much closer to Tristan Prettyman, her fellow Californian who burst on to the scene equally unexpectedly in 2005. This is summer music, agreeably laid-back yet effervescent, and, crucially, not banal.
Colbie Caillat – Battle.mp3

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My top 10 albums for 2008 (not a vintage year) were:
Jay Brannan – Goddamned
Ron Sexsmith – Exit Strategy Of The Soul
Tift Merritt – Another Country
The Weepies – Hideaway
Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers
Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst
Ben Folds – Way To Normal
Hello Saferide – More Modern Short Stories…
Neil Diamond – Home Before Dark

Full post here

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More Albums of the Year

Have Song, Will Sing Vol. 2 – Songbirds

August 1st, 2008 1 comment

The term singer-songwriter has acquired a bad reputation, unjustly so. As I’ve said before, the genre is in its best state since the days of Joni Mitchell and her contemporaries. The critics, it seems, seem to conflate the rich diversity of artists thus categorised with a glut of performers who have found mainstream success, but who are not actually representatives of the genre. They are not representative because, as this collection (and the first one I posted earlier this week) may show. So in these collections do not expect a legion of Jack Johnson and Norah Jones clones.

Sure, some may be influenced by these, but the current crop of singer-songwriters draw their influences widely: Rosie Thomas, Kate Walsh and the Weepies’ Deb Talan from folk or “Americana”, Brandi Carlile from rock; Ingrid Michaelson, Laura Veirs, Kimya Dawson and Hello Saferide from different strands of indie; Mindy Smith and Charlotte Kendrick from (alt.)country, Missy Higgins from pop; Maria Taylor from everything. And so on.

The women on this mix may be called “Songirds” (a term I had not seen used when I called my series that last year, but which seems to have currency; it is a good and obvious description). These Songbirds come mostly from the US, but other countries are represented: England (Kate Walsh), Sweden (Hello Saferide), Belgium (Sarah Bettens; the female part of K’s Choice), South Africa (the gorgeous Josie Field), Iceland (Emiliana Torrini), Australia (Missy Higgins). Catherine Feeny was born in the US and moved to England; Michelle Featherstone (who, scandalously, has no record contract) went the other way.

TRACKLISTING
1. Laura Veirs – Pink Light (from Saltbreaker, 2007)
2. Ingrid Michaelson – Breakable (from Girls And Boys, 2006)
3. Brandi Carlile – Late Morning Lullaby (from The Story, 2007)
4. Dar Williams – Farewell To The Old Me (from The Beauty Of The Rain, 2003)
5. Catherine Feeny – Mr. Blue (from Hurricane Glass, 2006)
6. Charlotte Kendrick – Thank You (from North Of New York, 2007)
7. Mindy Smith – Falling (from One More Moment, 2004)
8. Rosie Thomas – Since You’ve Been Around (from If Songs Could Be Held, 2005)
9. Kim Richey – The Absence Of Your Company (from Chinese Boxes, 2007)
10. Missy Higgins – Warm Whispers (from On A Clear Night, 2007)
11. Hello Saferide – The Quiz (from Would You Let Me Play This EP 10 Times A Day?, 2006)
12. Deb Talan – Cherry Trees (from Live at WERS Studio, 2001)
13. Maria Taylor – Two of Those Two (from 11:11, 2005)
14. Kate Walsh – Don’t Break My Heart (from Tim’s House, 2007)
15. Michelle Featherstone – Coffee & Cigarettes (from Fallen Down, 2006)
16. A Fine Frenzy – Come On Come Out (from One Cell In The Sea, 2007)
17. Laura Gibson – Hands In Pockets (from If You Come To Greet Me, 2006)
18. Sarah Bettens – Follow Me (from Scream, 2006)
19. Josie Field – Every Now And Then (from Mercury, 2006)
20. Kathleen Edwards – Scared At Night (from Asking For Flowers, 2008)
21. Emiliana Torrini – Next Time Around (from Fisherman’s Woman, 2004)
22. Gemma Hayes – Evening Sun (from 4.35 AM EP, 2001)
23. Kimya Dawson – Loose Lips (from Remember That I Love You, 2006)

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Love Songs For Every Situation: Heartbreak

February 23rd, 2008 4 comments

When unrequited love girl communicated to me gently that she didn’t like me that way, I experienced validation for the term heartbreak. It did feel as though my actually heart was broken right down the middle. Of course it didn’t, because else I would be dead, but the instant pain manifested itself in the location where the blood-pumping organ resides. It then moved to my chest and stomach, but lungache or gutbreak don’t sound terrible romantic.

The genre of love songs is rich in lyrics about broken hearts, from Sinatra learning the blues to Alicia Keys bemoaning that she can’t have you and any number of country singers picking up the shards of their broken hearts. Somehow this hugely intense emotion has given rise to some astoundingly banal lyrics — take a bow Bonnie Tyler and Mariah Carey. Here then, in the penultimate installment of this series, we deal with heartbreak in a non-banal manner.

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – The Tracks Of My Tears.mp3
This may well be the best song ever about a broken heart, by Motown’s poet laureate. Smokey is stoic, like the stiff-lipped Englishman of cliché, and won’t publicly exhibit his inner turmoil. He jokes around, has a cute girlfriend, but it’s an act. “The Tracks Of My Tears” also contains one of the most wonderfully delivered lines in pop ever: “My smile is my make-up I wear since my break-up with you”. There is joy in sadness.

Colin Hay – Lifeline.mp3
Part-time genius Colin Hay (who used to be Men At Work’s frontman) has a great way of expressing inner discontent with philosophical easy-goingness (take “Beautiful World” as an example of that). Here our man is a bit more forthright. She “broke my heart, I saw it coming from the start”, and now he is drowning in a sea of depression, hence the request for a lifeline in the chorus. He acknowledges that he needs to learn how to swim, throwing away the prozac (“You’ll never forget her, so why do you even try?”) and try to get over the depression by drinking water from appears to be a lake with magical healing properties. A really powerful song.

The Weepies – World Spins Madly On.mp3
When your heart is broken, inertia and feelings of alienation are normal reactions. The Weepies’ Steve Tannen outlines just that: “Woke up and wished that I was dead, with an aching in my head I lay motionless in bed. I thought of you and where you’d gone, and let the world spin madly on.” Perfect.

April Sixth – Dear Angel.mp3
I don’t usually do stuff with emo tendencies, but I’ll make an exception for this song (by a group named after my birthday, bless them), which I like a lot. Girl has dumped dude, and dude is feeling very bad about it. He thinks about her all the time, as you do, and naturally this causes him grief (“If only my love could be with you, if only this pain, this pain died too”). So he has decided that the best thing to do is to cut her out of his life entirely, for both their sakes (“So I’ll break you away”). Will he succeed?

Aqualung – Breaking My Heart Again.mp3
Heartbreak need not be a consequence of a break-up, but can kick in while a relationship still exists. And so it is here. “Need to know, don’t want to know, already know: I’ve seen the signs;
I watch you as you pull yourself away from.” And so our man out-Coldplays Apple Sr as he anticipates having his heart broken, apparently not for the first time, and observes: “I’m losing all strength” and, finally, “I’m losing you”.

Mozella – Light Years Away.mp3
Here’s a woman, in the singer-songwriter mode, who has her heart broken so badly that she is entirely embittered while saying she isn’t. “It’s almost like you had it planned, it’s like you smiled and shook my hand and said: ‘Hey, I’m about to screw you over big time’.” Clearly, the break-up was not easy (“I think I cried for days”), nor was the recovery. She has found a way of dealing with it: “But I don’t blame you anymore; that’s too much pain to store”, but takes care to inform him that the whole experience has changed her irrevocably. It’s all a rather clever fuck-off letter.

Damien Rice – Cannonball.mp3
I really wanted to use this song somewhere in this series, because it is one of the most powerful  songs about love I can think of. But in which part of the series? It is a song that captures perfectly the pain and confusion of imperfect love, the kind of emotion that ties your stomach in a knot, which is a manifestation of what we call heartache. The first two stanzas speak of confusion: “There’s still a little bit of your taste in my mouth. There’s still a little bit of you laced with my doubt. It’s still a little hard to say what’s going on.” Not exactly heartbreak, but a good dose of confusion here. The kick in the stomach comes later when our boy seeks distance, perhaps because he is scared of getting hurt in this relationship, or perhaps because it can’t be. “So come on courage, teach me to be shy. ‘Cause it’s not hard to fall, and I don’t want to scare her; it’s not hard to fall and I don’t want to lose…” Whatever the case, he is frightened of crashing (“It’s not hard to fall when you float like a cannonball”), and that inhibits his quest for letting love find full expression. And that is heartbreaking in itself.

Hall & Oates – She’s Gone.mp3
Well, it had to feature at some point in this series. Apparently the lads who’d become ’80s icons for their hairstyles (the serious mullet and bubble perm combo) were both dealing with heartbreaks at the time this song was written. The lyrics are fantastic. I love this: “Think I’ll spend eternity in the city [cue disapproving sound effect]. Let the carbon and monoxide choke my thoughts away. And pretty bodies help dissolve the memories. [However:] There can never be what she once was to me.” And the vocal performance, especially on the last line of the quoted verse and the drawn out “she’s gone” at 3:08, is wonderful.

Brandi Carlile – My Song.mp3
This might be about a failed romance or a friendship gone sour. Either way, Brandi (and don’t let her name put you off this wonderful songbird) harbours some anger as she sings: “If you only knew my mind was full of razors to cut you like a word” and “I’m way too old to hate you” (if you have to point out a lack of hatred, then there must be residual resentment). She holds out an olive branch, but won’t any longer run after the addressee of the song: “I’m too proud to beg for your attention and your friendship and your time. So you can come and get it from now on.”

PP Arnold – The First Cut Is The Deepest.mp3
This is, in my view, the best version of Cat Stevens’ great song (though I rather like Rod Stewart’s version too). Here our protagonist finds it difficult to be in love because of a previous episode of heartbreak. “I would have given you all of my heart, but there’s someone who’s torn it apart, and he’s taken just all that I had.” As he Bee Gees would ask a couple of years later: “How can you mend a broken heart?”

Roy Orbison – Crying.mp3
Rebekah Del Rio – Llorando.mp3

I was torn between using the original version, or the one Orbison recorded with k.d. Lang, or Rebekah del Rio’s breathtaking a cappela interpretation from Mulholland Drive. Much as I love the duet, I’ll go with the 1961 original and del Rio’s Spanish cover. Apparently Orbison wrote this after meeting an ex-girlfriend and realising in the process how much he had lost when she became an ex. “I thought that I was over you. But it’s true, so true: I love you even more than I did before.” So, as you will have guessed, Roy will be crying over her. It seems to surprise him: “It’s hard to understand, but the touch of your hand can start me crying.”

Sandie Shaw – Always Something There To Remind Me.mp3
Doesn’t Sandie Shaw sound incredibly sexy on this song? Burt Bacharach and Hal David built a great repository of love songs (and a few terribly sexist ones as well), and heartbreak featured prominently, hence two inclusions of their songs in this post. The set up here is explained in the songtitle: girl loves boy who doesn’t love girl anymore and she can’t forget him. Common stuff that is no less relevant for it: “How can I forget you when there is always something there to remind me? I was born to love you, and I will never be free; you’ll always be a part of me.”

Isaac Hayes – Walk On By (full version).mp3
The other Bacharach/David song. Everybody should know the lyrics well. “If you see me, do me a favour and just fuck off because talking with you will mess with me.” Or words to that effect. The song found its perfect expression in Dionne Warwick’s version. There have been many covers since, and it is quite difficult to do a bad cover of it, though not for lack of trying. Some have put their own spin on it. The Stranglers did, but I don’t like their cover much. Isaac Hayes, on the other hand, appropriated the song without taking it from Dionne, which is a mark of his genius. He took “Walk On By” and resculptured it into a psychedelic soul symphony going on for 12 minutes – and not a single second is wasted. As he did on other Bacharach songs — “The Look Of Love”, “Close To You” – he invested into the straightforward lyrics and melody whole new dynamics and drama. Where Warwick sweetly attracts your sympathy, Hayes involves you in the inner drama of the heartbreak to the point that it leaves you feeling the torment yourself. But by then you’re so exhausted, the heartbreak feels almost sweet.