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Albums of the Year: 2005

November 23rd, 2009 6 comments

It was a great year for fine albums, though only one merits to be remembered as a stone cold classic. I’m sorry to omit a number of very good efforts released in 2005, such as those by Brandi Carlile, Iron & Wine, Damien Jurado, Death Cab for Cutie, Maria Taylor, Andrew Bird, Emilíana Torrini, John Frusciante, Colin Hay, Kathleen Edwards, Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators, Kevin Devine, Eels, The Cardigans, John Prine, Kate Earl, Richard Thompson, Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Blue Eyed Son, Sarah Bettens, Antony & the Johnsons, Beck, Tristan Prettyman, The Magic Numbers, Hot Hot Heat, Charlie Sexton …

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Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

On the same day as Conor Oberst and chums released their best album — and one of the decades finest — they also released what I think is their worst, Digital Ash In A Digital Turn. It was wise that they did not take the option of releasing these two entirely distinct albums — one alt.country, the other electronica — as a double album. I’m Wide Awake, which features Emmylou Harris on a couple of tracks, has Oberst in a restrained, though not necessarily tamed, form. The indisciplined excesses from previous albums have been ironed out, but not at the expense of that most essential Oberst quality: the feverish intensity. It certainly is the most consistent Bright Eyes album. Every song here is beautiful, especially First Day Of My Life and We Are Nowhere And It’s Now, on the latter of which Emmylou harmonises.

Lyrically, Oberst is in fine form: tender, resigned, confused, hopeful, angry. When he sings on At The Bottom Of Everything about capital punishment, he rightly hectors: “Into the face of every criminal strapped firmly to a chair, we must stare, we must stare, we must stare.” And on Old Soul Song, about an anti-war protest in New York, has some beautifully poetic lines: “We left before the dust had time to settle, and all the broken glass swept off the avenue. And on the way home held your camera like a bible, just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth.”
Bright Eyes – Old Soul Song (For The New World Order).mp3
Bright Eyes – We Are Nowhere And It’s Now.mp3

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Richard Hawley – Coles Corner

From the moment the melancholy strings strike up on the album’s opener, the gorgeous title track (featured HERE), this album captivates the listener. A more even effort than 2003’s Lowedges, Hawley tries to capture a mood of 1950s balladeering, drawing from country, pop and rockabilly with a healthy dose of torchsong crooning. One can almost imagine Hotel Room being reworked as a doo wop song. The orchestration is lush, scoring Hawley’s warm baritone beautifully. Besides the title track and the countryish Just Like The Rain, the standout track here is The Ocean (not the most encouraging title, it must be said) which starts off quietly and slowly builds up to a dramatic crescendo. I’d gladly call Coles Corner Hawley’s masterpiece, but he has topped it with this year’s Truelove’s Gutter.
Richard Hawley – The Ocean.mp3

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Jens Lekman – Oh You’re So Silent, Jens

Jens Lekman featured with his debut album in the 2004 list; here he returns with a compilation of single and EP tracks — and Lekman has an extravagant catalogue of EPs, some of which he made available on his site for free downloading a while back. So it is suitable, and doubtless intentional, that the opening track would be called At the Dept. of Forgotten Songs. Lyrically and musically it’s all very quirky, but nowhere as much so as A Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill, a song that is at once funny and wistful (and which gets the release date of Warren G’s Regulate wrong and fails to credit Nate Dogg), recorded with probably not entirely sober pals who improvise the backing vocals and at the end shout out requests (the woman who requests Black Cab gets her wish on the album). Lekman channels Morrissey and The Byrds on I Saw Her At The Anti-War Demonstration, muses on the use of the F-Word, and forges the punchline to childhood jokes. In a sequence of three songs, Lekman assumes the alter ego Rocky Dennis (the name of the facially deformed character played by Eric Stoltz in the ’80s film Mask), whom he finally bids farewell at the end of the trilogy. It’s a thoroughly likeable collection of songs.
Jens Lekman – I Saw Her At The Anti-War Demonstration.mp3

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Wilco – Kicking Television – Live in Chicago

I’m ambivalent about live albums. Much of the time they are a letdown: the songs don’t sound as good as they did on the studio album, the live atmosphere is not captured and so on. Some live albums work because the artist’s stage presence or audience vibe translates to record. And some live albums work because the performer adds something new to the songs. Kicking Television satisfies at least the latter requirement (I’d argue that the vibe is there, too). Take Misunderstood. A weedy, proto-emo number on 1996’s Being There, here it’s a dramatic monster — I’m among those who love the repeated “Nothing”s. There’s humour as well. Following the mid-tempo Wishful Thinking, Tweedy announces, laughingly: “Let’s get this party started…with some mid-tempo rock”. True to his word, the band eases into the mid-tempo Jesus etc. With the great Nels Cline in the line-up and Tweedy having polished his guitar work, there’s much to be had by way of axemanship, most notably on At Least That’s What You Said.
Wilco – Misunderstood.mp3

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Hello Saferide – Introducing…Hello Saferide

Like fellow Swede Jens Lekman, who gets a namecheck in the wonderful The Quiz on Hello Saferide’s 2006 EP, Annika Norlin (for she is Hello Saferide) benefits from a quirky sense of humour, an attractive Swedish accent and the fact that English is not her first language. The latter is not a handicap as she manoeuvres her way around conventions to create novel lyrical ideas that are often cute but never twee. Norlin’s mind is fascinating: expressing her affection for a friend, she wishes they were lesbians; she wishes her boyfriend illness so that she can take care of her “teddy bear on heroin”; getting in touch again with an old pen pal, she admits to having told lies; as a high school stalker in the very funny song of the same name she breaks into the dentist’s office so that the object of her desire won’t need braces and then has coffee with his mother. The upbeat tunes are catchy, and the slow numbers are saved by almost invariably great lyrics and Norlin’s lovely, vulnerable voice.
Hello Saferide – Highschool Stalker.mp3
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Neil Diamond – 12 Songs

God bless Rick Rubin. Having re-established Johnny Cash as relevant artist, he resurrected Neil Diamond, redeeming him from the lame-jacketed crooner reputation. The title 12 Songs became a misnomer with the belated introduction of two bonus tracks (a rip-off, surely it’s the initial purchasers of an album who deserve a bonus), one an alternative, upbeat version of Delirious Love, a song featuring Brian Wilson that appears in more muted form among the original dozen tracks.. That song is the closest Diamond comes to his late ’60s pomp, the bonus track’s arrangement in particular. Most of the album is reflective, pensive and acoustic. It is beautiful. And it’s tempting to give Rubin all the credit. That would be unfair to Diamond, who wrote the songs and for whom the acoustic arrangement is not foreign, as fans of his ’60s albums will know. More than equipping Diamond with a new sound, Rubin harnessed the man’s strength and, perhaps more importantly, by association made him, like Cash, relevant again.
Neil Diamond – Save Me A Saturday Night.mp3

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Common – Be

I can think of very few albums on which the three closing tracks may be the set’s best. Ziggy Stardust comes to mind as a contender (though its best song, Starman, is on Side 1). This is certainly the case here. Modern hip hop, especially the leering misogyny and swaggering materialism expressed by dentally adventurous people in whose company I would not want to spend a minute, leaves me largely cold. Kanye West’s album of the same year had its moments, but I never feel prompted to play it. West did, however, produce most of Common’s album, which is good, and appears on many of the tracks, which is not so good when he makes those idiotic high-pitched noises. This certainly is not a hip hop album that’s representative of the contemporary genre. As much of Common’s work, it is thoughtful and socially conscious. It draws as much from Public Enemy as it does from the great era of politically aware black music, the early to mid-1970s. There is more than a hint of Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron on Be, and the Last Poets even appear on the album, as does John Legend, one of the few current non-nasal R&B crooners whose music is rooted in the ’70s soul scene (slightly unexpectedly, John Mayer also pops up). Common, in short, is the Marvin Gaye of hip hop.
Common – It’s Your World (Part 1 & 2).mp3

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Josh Rouse – Nashville

On his fifth album, the Nebraskan Rouse said goodbye to his temporary domicile of Nashville before moving to Spain. Where his previous album, 1972, sought to capture the vibe of the year of the title, on Nashville Rouse revisits 1980s indie pop through a country lense. It’s cheerful, catchy stuff for a warm summer’s evening (even if one track is called Winter In The Hamptons), admirably coming in at under 40 minutes, like LPs used to. The lyrics aren’t very memorable here; some are decidedly pedestrian. The album’s most powerful song, Sad Eyes, is also its least jovial. It starts slowly as Rouse observes a woman’s melancholy and builds up to a, erm, rousing climax as he offers encouragement. Alas, it’s followed by the set’s one clunker, the rocker Why Won’t You Tell Me What.
Josh Rouse – Sad Eyes.mp3

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Ben Folds – Songs For Silverman

Ah, the album the hardcore Foldsians love to hate. Granted, there’s some forgettable guff on here. Much as I love Ben Folds, I would not be able to tell you a thing about Time or Sentimental Guy. And, as I’m getting all my irritations with Silverman off the chest, the tribute to Elliott Smith, Late, has some really poor lyrics. But then there is the vintage Folds stuff. Bastard, ostensibly about young Republicans in old clothes, packs a decent groove. Give Judy My Notice has a great West Coast rock vibe. You To Thank has a superb piano break, and the break-up songs, Trusted (“She’s gonna be pissed when she wakes up for terrible things I did to her in her dreams”) and Landed (“Down comes the reign of the telephone czar”), are among the best work Folds has done, musically and lyrically. And having just listened to Time and Sentimental Guy for the purpose of this project, well, they are not bad songs.
Ben Folds – You To Thank.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – If These Songs Could Be Held

The title If These Songs Could Be Held seems apt; there is fragility in Rosie Thomas’ songs, emphasised by her beautiful, sad voice. You want to hold her and the songs. Her family and friends help out again, with Ed Harcourt duetting on the unpretentious cover of Let It Be Me (featured in The Originals Vol. 24). The arrangements are more complex than a casual listen would suggest. Hear the almost martial bass drum in the opener Since You’ve Been Gone. The lyrics range from perceptive introspection to sophomore poetry, but expressed through the medium of Rosie’s gorgeous voice, even the more inopportune words are entirely forgivable.
Rosie Thomas – If These Songs Could Be Held.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Albums of the Year: 2003

November 11th, 2009 7 comments

Before we move to my Top 10 albums of 2003 — a purely subjective choice of albums from that year which I enjoy, rather than an attempt at a best-of list — let me apologise for the confusion created by wrong links in last week’s two posts, and thank the kind people who alerted me to them. It was a little negligent of me not to test the links first. I have worked out what the trouble was: on Mediafire’s infuriatingly redesigned site, the “copy link” button is seriously wonky; instead of copying the link for the requested file, it copies the link of the first file in the upload folder (in last week’s instance the Iron & Wine song). So, here’s an urgent message to Mediafire, Facebook and all other services: please don’t innovate yourselves into oblivion. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

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Josh Rouse – 1972

josh_rouseTo mark his 30th birthday, Josh Rouse decided to record a concept album intended to evoke the year of his birth. I’ve written about the cover before here. In that post, I wrote the following about the album itself. 1972 might easily have turned out as a pastiche of the worst clichés. Happily, it didn’t: the sound is contemporary. Rouse evokes rather than recreates what he imagines were the sounds of 1972. Imagine the concept as the subtle but essential spice in a delicious meal. The album borrows its influences wisely: James, a song about alcoholism which appears on the first Any Major Flute mix, is a psychedelic soul workout, with Jim Hoke’s excellent jazz flute and Rouse’s falsetto positioning the song closest to 1972. Elsewhere, swirling strings and saxophone (also by Hoke), handclaps and Latin percussions serve as a marker for the ’70s influence being filtered through Rouse’s sound.
Josh Rouse – Rise.mp3
Josh Rouse – Love Vibration.mp3

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Lloyd Cole – Music In A Foreign Language

lloyd_coleLloyd Cole used to get such a bad rap back in the day. I could never understand the charges of Cole being pretentious. Even Easy Pieces, the second Lloyd Cole & the Commotions album which Cole has virtually disowned (on account of having been rushed by the record company to prematurely complete it), has many great and not particularly pretentious moments. Having broken up the Commotions after three albums, Cole’s solo career didn’t really take off. That is a shame. On Music In A Foreign Language, Cole continued on the acoustic trip he began on the previous album. Here it’s just him, his guitar and minimal backing music, with Lloyd singing his melancholy, beautiful songs straight on to his computer. The whole exercise is so intimate, listeners may be forgiven if they feel like they are intruding on a private moment. Lyrically he is on introspective top form. I don’t listen to this album nearly often enough.
Lloyd Cole – Music In A Foreign Language.mp3

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Death Cab For Cutie – Transatlanticism

death_cab_transatlanticismThis is the album where Death Cab for Cutie crossed the line from oddly-named Indie group to serious rock band. Transatlanticism is something of a rock symphony; it’s not rewarding to pluck out its songs in isolation, except perhaps the excellent opener, The New Year, and the acoustic coda, A Lack Of Color. It’s the kind of lush album one must hear in full, preferably with headphones while in a kicked back mood, being immersed in the sound. Lyrically it has its moment, such as the story of the protagonist in Title And Registration who finds a forgotten photo of an ex-girlfriend after being pulled over by a cop (it also features the annoying line: “The glove compartment is accurately named”; thanks for pointing that out, Gibbard).
Death Cab for Cutie – A Lack of Color.mp3

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Colin Hay – Man @ Work

man@workThe title of the album is an obvious reference to the Australian band with which Scottish-born Colin Hay had some chart success in the early ’80s. Here Hay revisits some of his best songs from his solo repertoire as well as the Men At Work catalogue. None of these re-recordings do their originals injustice. The acoustic versions of the three big Men At Work hits — Down Under, Who Can It Be Now and Overkill — are strikingly remade and worth the price of the CD alone, especially the far superior interpretation of Overkill. There is also a more faithful reworking of Down Under, with brass replacing the flute; and fine remakes of Men At Work’s Be Good Johnny and It’s A Mistake.

Hay fans will have their own views on which versions here eclipse the original. Looking For Jack is vastly improved here, but I prefer the less dreamy version of Beautiful World on Going Somewhere to that reproduced here from 2002’s Company Of Strangers. Hay does recycle enthusiastically; the recording of Waiting For My Real Life To Begin here is the same as that on Going Somewhere; he recorded a rockier, inferior version for 2005’s Topanga, named after the California town where he now lives.
Colin Hay – Overkill (acoustic).mp3

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The Minus 5 – Down With Wilco

minus5The title of The Minus 5’s fifth album notes the involvement of Tweedy and pals in its production, not an antipathy towards Chicago’s finest (and the group was doubtless aware of the title’s gag). A project of songwriter Scott McCaughey, leader of The Young Fresh Fellows and touring bassist for Robyn Hitchcock, this incarnation of Minus 5 also includes long-time collaborator Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. The sound borrows heavily from White Album period Beatles, early Byrds and the Hollies (Life Left Him There sounds more than a bit like Jennifer Eccles), filtered through an ambient alt.country colander. Wilco’s mark is evident but not overbearing, and Tweedy’s voice is welcome when it pops up. There is a joy in the sound which suggests that the collaborators had great fun recording it. This is an upbeat album that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Minus 5 – Where Will You Go.mp3

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Richard Hawley – Lowedges

hawley_lowedgesAll of Richard Hawley’s five full albums will feature in my Top 10s of the ’00s. All of five of them are superb; all are beautifully orchestrated with Hawley’s attractive baritone giving life to his fine, often melancholy lyrics. So when I declare that Lowedges is my least favourite Hawley album, I am being somewhat unfair to what is a fine album. The songs on Lowedges are as affecting as any; one wants to live inside them. Don’t Miss Your Water, On The Ledge, The Nights Are Made For Us or the dramatic Run For Me are as good as almost any Hawley songs. Lowedge’s The Motorcycle Song probably is my least favourite Hawley song; and even that is not terrible.
Richard Hawley – The Nights Are Made For Us.mp3

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Damien Rice – O

damien_riceO, but Damien was one overwrought lad. You fear for him in what must be a terribly fragile state. But, goodness, there are some beautiful songs on this album, and some heartwrenching lyrics. Rice is not a very good singer, so all the happier the moments when Lisa Hannigan supports him (although, typically, only to make poor Damien even more heartbroken). There are no clunkers on this set, and a bunch of quite brilliant songs, particularly The Blower’s Daughter, Volcano, Eskimo (with the operatic interlude), and Delicate. And Cannonball, which eclipses all of them. The album’s inclusion in this post is something of an anomaly. O was released in Ireland in 2002; after slow-burning success which eventually took the album into the UK top 10, it was released internationally in 2003.
Damien Rice – Eskimo.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – Only With Laughter Can You Win

rosie_thomas_laughterOf Rosie Thomas’ four albums (excluding last year’s Christmas effort), this is the one on which she is most explicit about her Christian faith. That is good news, of course, for the believer, but should not put off the religious sceptic, for her brand of Christianity — like that of her frequent collaborators Damien Jurado and Sufjan Stevens —bashes no Bible and does not glorify or moralise. Mostly, she is asking God how the hell she is supposed to live this life. Indeed, the evangelical fundamentalists might well call Rosie a Maoist Osama Nazi, as is their objectionable wont, should they encounter lyrics like this, on Tell Me Now: “How am I to tell them if they never follow Christ that heaven doesn’t hold a place for them…when I’m no better than them.” Christ is periodically present; and He should be: the album was recorded in Detroit’s 19th century St John’s church.

The music, as on all Rosie’s albums (which is another way of saying predictably), is intimate, delicate and entirely gorgeous — but there isn’t much by way of the victory-aiding laughter in the title. Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam makes an appearance on Red Rover, alas the weakest track on this album, which is also the weakest of in the Rosie Thomas catalogue — though here I hasten to invoke the Hawley doctrine.
Rosie Thomas – I Play Music.mp3

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The Darkness – Permission To Land

darknessWas it all a glorious piss-take, lending heavy rock all the camp that Queen fans so routinely denied in their group because the band’s name provided absolutely no clue? The cover of Permission To Land even aped the sexism we occasionally encountered in Queen (remember the Fat Bottomed Girls poster that came with the Jazz album?). The debut, unlike the follow-up, borrowed its influences more broadly than merely Queen, of course. The Darkness swigged copiously from the vats of hair metal, Van Halenesque CocRock, and AC/DC. Singer Justin Hawkins camped it up in striped spandex trousers, while bassist Frankie Pullain played the straight man. It was all a bit Spinal Tap, and if not quite a spoof or wind-up, then certainly rock music performed with a wink and a nod. And yet, the Darkness was not a novelty act; they took their music seriously and wanted the listener to have fun with it. They even gave us a damn good power ballad, featured here.
The Darkness – Love Is Only A Feeling.mp3

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eastmountainsouth – eastmountainsouth

eastmountainsouthBefore there were The Weepies, there were the shift- and space-bar boycotting eastmountainsouth. Discovered by Robbie Robertson, the folk-pop duo released only this one album, before Kat Maslich Bode and Peter Bradley Adams went their own way. That’s a pity; the album is lovely. It does not spring surprises on the listener; indeed, played in the wrong mood, it could be considered boring. The songs don’t go beyond mid-tempo, and they don’t always engage as immediately as those of fellow folkie Rosie Thomas. But the harmonies are exquisite, the vibe is warm. This is an album to savour on a lazy, preferably rainy weekend over a cup of coffee.
eastmountainsouth – Ghost.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Albums of the Year: 2002

November 4th, 2009 3 comments

Goodness, wasn’t 2002 a dire year for music? Still, there were some highlights, and doubtless a few gems I missed (as always, I can only include those albums I have and like).
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Johnny Cash – American IV – The Man Comes Around

johnny_cashIn 2005, Any Minor Dude had his first guitar lesson. The tutor, a session musician of some repute, asked the 10-year-old what he wanted to play, probably expecting to hear Green Day or Black Eyed Peas. Any Minor Dude responded: “Johnny Cash”. It had nothing to do with my influence; he had seen the wonderful video for Hurt on MTV, and became an instant fan. Soon after, he bought the Highwaymen CD (Cash’s supergroup with Jennings and Kristofferson) and polished up on older Cash music, even buying a live DVD. I suspect that Hurt, which features on The Man Comes Around, may have introduced many young people to the genius of Johnny Cash. It certainly established this album as the best known of the American recordings.

I don’t know whether it is the best of the series. When I hear it, I think it probably is, especially when I consider that this was released only three months before the man’s death, and so stands as a testament (in a prescient bit of sequencing, the traditional ballad Streets Of Laredo, with its theme of death, burial and redemption, closes the set). But when I hear the first or third American albums, I think whichever one I am listening to is the best. American IV has a few songs that did not need to be recorded, such as Personal Jesus and Bridge Over Troubled Water. But then there are those two extraordinary covers, Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt and Sting’s Hung My Head, which Cash entirely appropriates. Those two and the title track eclipse almost anything in this great Rick Rubin-produced series.
Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around.mp3
Johnny Cash – Streets Of Laredo.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – When We Were Small

rosie_thomasFew singers achieve such immediate intimacy with her listeners as Seattle’s Rosie Thomas, whose beautiful, vulnerable voice accompanies sweet acoustic melodies. Lovely though her songs may sound, her lyrics are in turn sardonic, sad and dark. On her debut album, childhood is a running thread, with what seem to be random old family recordings linking tracks. As all her subsequent albums (other than last year’s Christmas album), When We Were Small has a sense of deep yearning for absent contentment, fleeting moment of love to fill in long, lacerating periods of loss felt deeply. If that sounds boring, know that Thomas was signed by Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop, the record label that made grunge, who had caught Rosie singing during her stand-up comedy gigs (what’s that about sad clowns?). This is an astonishing debut, and Rosie would get even better yet.
Rosie Thomas – Wedding Day.mp3

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Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

WILCOMy pick of song from this album will alert the Wilco fan which side of the group I prefer: the alt-country Wilco. There’s some of that on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which many seem to regard as a highpoint of ’00s music. Some Wilco purists may hate me for saying it, but my preference resides with this album’s 1999 predecessor, Summerteeth, or the undervalued Sky Blue Sky. On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Wilco go experimental, with noise distortion and electronic innovations, which ordinarily are not my bag. Then what, the reader is entitled to demand, is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot doing on this list? Well, within the Wilco framework, it’s actually very good, and at times exhilarating as the musical dissonance accompanies the discord in the relationships Tweedy is singing about. It may not be my favourite Wilco album, but I’ll concede that it is the Wilco classic.
Wilco – Jesus, etc.mp3

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Ben Folds – Ben Folds Live

folds_liveNo artist I like ever comes to play where I live (other than Missy Higgins, whose gig I missed, and Counting Crows, whose tickets I couldn’t afford at the time); only megastars and superannuated irrelevancies fly in to fleece the South African consumer (a largely ignorant group of people who think that Coldplay is on the sharp end of the cutting edge). Happily, I had my fill of great concerts when I lived in London. But if I could invite one artist to tour South Africa, it would be Ben Folds, alone on strength of two DVDs and many bootlegs I have of Folds in concert — and this album.

It seems a strange decision for Folds to have recorded a solo live album only one album after having split the Ben Folds Five. So the tracklisting incorporates old BFF numbers (such as the astonishing Narcolepsy, Army, Best Imitation Of Myself, The Last Polka, Brick, and Song For The Dumped), which lose little through the absence of his rhythm section, and material from the solo debut, 2001’s Rockin’ The Suburbs, plus a rather good cover of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. The set includes Folds’ two party pieces: directing the audience to provide backing orchestration to the very funny Army (“Well, I thought about the army; Dad said, ‘Son, you’re fucking high”) and spooky harmonies to Not The Same, the song about a friend who climbed up a tree during a party while on an acid trip and had become a born-again Christian by the time he came down.
Ben Folds – Army (live).mp3 (link fixed)

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Alexi Murdoch – Four Songs

alexi_murdochMaybe I’m cheating by including an EP comprising, as the title suggest, only four songs by Murdoch, who is usually compared to Nick Drake, and reasonable so. But those four songs are excellent; why dilute things with mediocre filler tracks? Having said that, Murdoch’s full debut album, 2006’s Time Without Consequence, turned out to be a consistently fine effort with few fillers. That album featured re-recordings of three of the songs on the EP (and those three also appear in re-recorded form on the recently released Away We Go soundtrack, which also recycles a heap of tracks from Time Without Consequence). From the EP, the moody Orange Sky received a fair amount of exposure on several TV shows and soundtracks — which we must not scorn; the licensing fees from TV shows, soundtracks and commercials feed many excellent musicians.
Alexi Murdoch – Blue Mind.mp3

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Tift Merritt – Bramble Rose

tift_merrittLike soul music, country in the past decade or so has been molded and packaged to turn out generic, corporate slush headlined by the regrettable likes of Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. For the most part, it’s pop that is unconvincingly dressed up as country. The cowboy-hatted diehards may have recourse to perennial Grammy nominees such as Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson, or the bluegrass offerings of Alison Krauss or, lately, Dolly Parton. But beneath the surface of commercial prosperity, country remains vibrant.

Tift Merritt is one of those who work from a rich, venerable tradition without being compromised by the dictates of commercialism. Merritt’s quiet, melodious debut is the most traditional country of her three albums, with slide guitars and the sensibilities of such legends of the genre as Emmylou Harris or Jessi Colter (and, on the rockier songs, Linda Ronstadt) much in evidence. Her second album veered towards bluegrass, and the third album is more accomplished, but this is a very creditable debut.
Tift Merrit – Diamond Shoes.mp3

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Joseph Arthur – Redemption’s Son

joseph_arthurThe Indie singer-songwriter has not produced anything I like since 2004’s Our Shadows Still Remain, but the trio of that album, 2000’s Come To Where I’m From and Redemption’s Son should sustain me in those times when I require a Joseph Arthur fix (actually, I’ve sequenced my favourite tracks from those albums on my iPod). Arthur’s strength resides in his introspective lyrics, much on this set of a Christian bent (of the Sufjan Stevens variety, I hasten to add. The man has his fill of inner conflicts). Musically, he is eclectic and experimental, which is certainly commendable and perhaps expected of a Peter Gabriel protégé, though I can do without the kitchen sink production of some tracks. And the album is a few songs too long. But when it hits the sweet spot, it’s gorgeous.
Joseph Arthur – Honey And The Moon.mp3

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Josh Rouse – Under Cold Blue Stars

josh_rouseI know a venerable music journalist who’ll fling all review albums by anyone called Josh or Joshua (or, indeed, Ben) across the floor. It’s safe to say that the man is not a great fan of the often misunderstood and unjustly maligned singer-songwriter label. Still, I have a feeling he’d like Josh Ritter, though I’m not quite sure whether he would take to Josh Rouse. Certainly the music of this Josh would not conform to his expectation of a guitar strumming singer-songwriter. He might be surprised to hear a musician who creates appealing, intelligent pop numbers, many of which would not have been out of place on early Prefab Sprout albums. Under Cold Blue Stars is a fine album; if it was all Rouse would ever record, I’d regard it as a favourite. It was, however, followed by two outstanding albums, 1972 and Nashville. This set can’t compete with those (but it’s better than the two albums that came after those). I’ve had trouble deciding which song to feature, which is a mark of how good an album this is.
Josh Rouse – Feeling No Pain.mp3 (link fixed)

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Iron & Wine – The Creek Drank The Cradle

iron_wineSam Beam, for he is Iron & Wine, recorded the songs on this album, another debut on Sub Pop, as demos at his Florida home on four-track, and it very much sounds like it. Beam’s almost whispered vocals accompany very pretty but not necessarily memorable melodies. But it’s not that kind of album (whereas the follow-up, 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, had a few of those); you put it on to be immersed by a soothing and ultimately engaging atmosphere, aided by some astutely ambiguous lyrics. The deficiencies in sound quality make sense when Beam borrows from old country and bluegrass, as he does on An Angry Blade and The Rooster Moans, which one might well mistake for some old, lost Appalachian recordings. Indeed, the aural imperfections add to the set’s intimacy.
Iron & Wine – Upward Over The Mountain.mp3

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Counting Crows – Hard Candy

counting_crows_hard_candyThe early ’00s suffered from nostalgia trips by people who grew up in the ’90s: Ben Folds Five devotees who refuse to accept the Ben Folds One, Weezer fans who want Pinkerton perpetually recycled (and, to be fair, the latest Weezer album is awful), and Counting Crows devotees who need to compare every new Crows album to August And Everything After. The latter group was hard on Hard Candy. It may not be the (rather overrated) debut’s equal, but it certainly is more upbeat — and Duritz finally stops going on about the heartbreaking Elisabeth. Admittedly, Hard Candy includes some filler material, but this is the age of WinAmp which allows the listener to re-sequence albums (if only to avoid the ghastly American Girls). If some of the album is frustratingly disappointing, the other half comprises some of Counting Crows’ finest moments. Holiday In Spain is gorgeous, even if the album version is rendered entirely redundant by the gorgeous live version on the New Amsterdam album, which was recorded on the Hard Candy tour. Counting Crows have referenced The Band throughout their career; here their heroes get a namecheck by way of noting Richard Manuel’s death (even if The Band’s late, bearded singer serves only as a MacGuffin to a reflection on a relationship).
Counting Crows – If I Could Give All My Love (Or Richard Manuel Is Dead).mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Great covers: Josh Rouse – 1972 (2002)

June 29th, 2009 4 comments

Josh Rouse marked his 30th birthday in 2002 with an album inspired by the year of his birth. It might easily have turned out as a pastiche of the worst clichés. Happily, it didn’t: the sound is contemporary. Rouse evokes rather than recreates what he imagines were the sounds of 1972. Imagine the concept as the subtle but essential spice in a delicious meal. The album borrows its influences wisely: James, a song about alcoholism, is a psychedelic soul workout, with Jim Hoke’s excellent jazz flute and Rouse’s falsetto positioning the song closest to 1972. Elsewhere, swirling strings and saxophone (also by Hoke), handclaps and Latin percussions serve as a marker for the ’70s influence being filtered through Rouse’s sound. Read more…

Valentines – Any Major Love Mix CD-R

February 7th, 2008 12 comments

I am no great fan of Valentine’s Day, and don’t usually join in the hype. It seems time appropriate to post a Valentine’s mix though — especially for all the lovers out there who want to express their emotions via the time-honoured medium of the mix-tape, but lack the time or energy to bang a good one together. If I can prevent one fool in love from rushing out to buy a Valentine’s Day comp featuring the stylings of Celine, Whitney and, invariably, the totally misapplied James Blunt classic “You’re Beautiful”, then I feel I have done good.

Compiling this mix represented a challenge, for the genres represented herein tend to be less than effusive on matters of the heart. But when the artists representing these genres do effuse, they tend to do so eloquently and without dangling too much by way of cliché. Of course, love does attract, even demand, cliché, and some of our artists here toy with the odd hackneyed sentiment. These may sound silly to us cynics, but to the fool in love, these clichés are poetry and fact.

Has there ever been a more beautiful love song written than Ben Folds’ “The Luckiest”? Not all the songs here are about the blissfulness of love, perhaps Colbie Caillat’s song is the most conventional love song in this lot. Bright Eyes’ “First Day In My Life” has an undertone of uncertainty. Jens Lekman’s love is slavish, to the point of making grand romantic gestures involving vandalism at his lover’s instructions. Hello Saferide introduces a wonderful paradox in wishing her lover sickness. Liz Phair rounds things off with a take which makes being love seem as difficult as it really is.

Tracklisting:

1. The Postal Service – Such Great Heights
‘I am thinking it’s a sign that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images, and when we kiss they are perfectly alligned.’

2. Jets To Brazil – Sweet Avenue
Now all these tastes improve through the view that comes with you. Like they handed me my life, for the first time it felt worth it, like I deserved it.

3. Michelle Featherstone – Rest Of My Life
How ’bout that? Waking up every morning with me. Spend our time drinking coffee, speaking softly as the days go by.

4. The Weepies – Somebody Loved
‘Now my feet turn the corner back home. Sun turns the evening to rose, stars turning high up above. You turn me into somebody loved.’

5. Bright Eyes – First Day Of My Life
Yours was the first face that I saw, I think I was blind before I met you. I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where I’ve been, but I know where I want to go.

6. Ben Folds – The Luckiest
‘And where was I before the day that I first saw your lovely face? Now I see it everyday, and I know: I’m the luckiest.’

7. Joseph Arthur – Echo Park
The fire never understands the spark, the way it is with you and me.’

8. Ron Sexsmith – Whatever It Takes
‘The sun alone will never do, without your love to shine on through’

9. Jens Lekman – You Are The Light
Yeah I got busted, so I used my one phone call to dedicate a song to you on the radio.’

10. Hello Saferide – Get Sick Soon
Oh, I love you! I wish you got the flu, you’re the cutest thing I’ve ever seen — like a teddy bear on heroin ... You can lay your weight on me and I’ll be your backbone. Lay your weight on me, you won’t have to worry.’

11. Colbie Caillat – Magic
I remember the way that you move. You’re dancing easily through my dreams. It’s hitting me harder and harder with all your smiles.

12. Josh Kelley – To Make You Feel My Love
I’d go hungry I’d go black and blue. I’d go crawling down the avenue. No there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to make you feel my love.

13. Ben Harper – By My Side
‘My care for you is from the ground up to the sky it’s over under up above down below and to the side.’

14. Mason Jennings – Ballad For My One True Love
‘And all the while I ‘m dreaming of the ballad for my one true love, searching for the perfect way to say: I love you sweetheart, this is my dream come true.’

15. Peter Mayer – Now Touch The Air Softly
‘And I’ll love you as long as the furrow the plow, as However is Ever, and Ever is Now.’

16. Richard Hawley – Baby, You’re My Light
‘But I believe in you and now I’ll show it. And as life goes on you know you don’t have to hate all you find. Baby, you’re my light.’

17. Mindy Smith – It’s Amazing
It’s amazing what you do to me: took my heart and made me feel things I never felt before. It’s changing me, Which direction so certainly; shook me up and threw me around. When we learn to breathe it all in.’

18. Josh Rouse – Wonderful
Reading the paper with my coffee, and before you must go there’s one thing you should know: I think you’re wonderful. Don’t change.

19. Jackie Greene – Love Song; 2.00 am
Should your mind forget me, regret me, or even do me wrong, you’ll always live here in my heart, ’cause, baby, that’s where you belong.

20. Eastmountainsouth – So Are You to Me
‘As the ruby in the setting, as the fruit upon the tree, as the wind blows over the plains, so are you to me.’

21. Bob Schneider – The World Exploded Into Love
‘The world exploded into love all around me, and every time I take a look around me, I have to smile.

22. Liz Phair – Good Love Never Dies
Tell me what can I say to keep you in my life, all the words slip away when I look in your eyes, because I can never relax.

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Show some love for Josh Rouse

November 28th, 2007 3 comments

There are many mysteries in the world. I will not bore you with a few witty examples of such mysteries as a set up for stating the conundrum which occupies me today: how the fuck is it that Josh Rouse remains some sort of best-kept secret?

Since his debut set in 1998, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, Rouse has released seven proper albums, plus a couple of EPs and collaborations. Two or three of these are bona fide classics, the others are “just” very good indeed. Rouse has yet to make a mediocre album. That is a pretty good strike rate.

His first couple of releases were solid albums which didn’t stray far from the singer-songwriter Americana pop recipe, with hints of indie. Some tracks take some getting into, others are easily accessible. Test drive Late Night Conversation from the debut, or Directions from his sophomore effort, Home.

2002’s Under Cold Blue Stars ushered in a trilogy of outstanding albums. Here, Rouse began playing with different genres without departing much from the sound of his previous albums, as songs like Ugly Stories (which could be a Wilco song) and Women And Men show.

The real innovative leap came a year later with 1972, a concept album of sorts titled after and inspired by the year of his birth. The idea was to recreate what Rouse thought to be the vibe of that year while still creating a contemporary sound. He succeeded admirably: the album is evocative of the 1970s without ever being retro, other than the excellent cover art. Check out James (a song about alcoholism featuring kick ass blaxploitation flute), the sexy Under Your Charms and the lilting 1972 (which certain motel chains might wish to use in an advertising campaign), as well as Love Vibration, which I posted a few weeks ago. It’s an upbeat and charming and smooth and funky album with some lyrics hinting at a darker side to Rouse. It is possibly one of the albums of the decade.

1972 gained Rouse much critical attention, and in 2005 he matched its high quality with Nashville, his farewell paean to the city that he had called home for some years. On Nashville, Rouse recalled the ’80s — there is more of a Smiths influence than C&W — but more than that Rouse provided a combination of attributes that should appeal to fans of those artists he is often compared to: a bit like Elliott Smith, but less morose; a bit like Jeff Tweedy, but more relaxed; a bit like Ben Kweller, but more mature and consistent; a bit like Sufjan Stevens, but not as weird; a bit like Ryan Adams, but less smug. Add to that some stunning lyrics and catchy tunes, and you have an album people will rediscover in 20 years time and hold up as an example of why the 00s were a fine decade for music. Highlights include the regretful Middle School Frown (about betraying school friends in a bid to be seen as cool), poppy openers It’s The Nighttime and Winter In The Hamptons, and especially the astonishing Sad Eyes, a song that grabs you with its quiet pleading and then slays you an emotional crescendo (if you sample only one song from this lot, make it this one).

After Nashville, Rouse moved to Spain, fell in love, put on his slippers and relaxed. The result was 2006’s more tranquil and a little underwhelming Subtitulo, at least by Rouse’s standards. It’s not a poor album by any means. Some of it is pretty good. But unlike other Rouse albums, it packs no punch. It’s dinner party background music. And yet, as I try to choose two songs, I’m torn. Try Looks Like Love (Josh is in love and unsoppily tells us about it) and the one song that matches anything from the previous albums, the decidedly non-laid back His Majesty Rides.

This year’s Country Mouse City House, has been the most difficult Rouse album to get into since the first two. Here, Rouse hops genres at an alarming rate, which can be a bit disorientating. Its lack of cohesion betrays a deficit in focus, though not in quality. Take the songs in isolation, and there is plenty of material to include on a Josh Rouse retrospective. Sweetie is as cute as the title suggests, and Hollywood Bassplayer, God Please Let Me Go Back, and Italian Dry Ice, which he sings with a disconcertingly low voice, as well as Nice To Fit In (which sounds like it belongs on Nashville) are as good as anything Rouse has produced. See my review of the album here.

Josh Rouse – 1972.mp3 (from 1972)
Josh Rouse – Directions.mp3 (from Home)
Josh Rouse – God, Please Let Me Go Back.mp3 (from County Mouse City House)
Josh Rouse – His Majesty Rides.mp3 (from Subtítulo)
Josh Rouse – Hollywood Bassplayer.mp3 (from County Mouse City House)
Josh Rouse – Italian Dry Ice.mp3 (from County Mouse City House)
Josh Rouse – James.mp3 (from 1972)
Josh Rouse – Late Night Conversations.mp3 (from Dressed Up Like Nebraska)
Josh Rouse – Looks Like Love.mp3 (from Subtítulo)
Josh Rouse – Love Vibration.mp3 (from 1972)
Josh Rouse – Middle School Frown.mp3 (from Nashville)
Josh Rouse – Sad Eyes.mp3 (from Nashville)
Josh Rouse – Ugly Stories.mp3 (from Under Cold Blue Stars)
Josh Rouse – Under Your Charms.mp3 (from 1972)
Josh Rouse – Women And Men.mp3 (from Under Cold Blue Stars)

15 tracks: your Josh Rouse Best Of comp right there. Visit Josh Rouse’s homepage for tour dates and more.

Previously, love was shown for:
Jens Lekman
Rilo Kiley
Richard Hawley

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

2007: getting better

June 30th, 2007 3 comments

This year is beginning to look good. A few fine new albums that have been released or are still awaiting release will make the wait for the ageless classic bearable (apologies for the links mix-up earlier; the Cary Brothers link is now correct).

Spoon – The Underdog
From Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, which despite its awful title is a glorious album, with all the experimentations coming together just right. “The Underdog” is fantastic; it has horns, acoustic guitars, handclaps, a furious finale, and Britt Daniel sounds as much as Phil Lynott as he ever will. An album to be excited about.

Brandi Carlile – The Story
When I first came across Carlile, I thought her name marked her out as a cheerleader-type pop princess. Goodness, how wrong I was. This woman can sing her folk-rock/alt.country stuff. Hear her roar on “The Story”, the title track from her quite wonderful sophomore album.

Josh Rouse – God, Please Let Me Go Back
From Country Mouse, City House. I like this song’s George Harrison-style guitar and hummable chorus. The new album is a tough one. It’s not as instantly lovable as 1972, not as brilliant as Nashville, not as intimate as last year’s Subtitulo. One knows after one spin that there is much quality here, but it will need repeated listens before this set will click. With Josh Rouse, the patience always pays off.

Kate Walsh – Talk Of The Town
There are so many wonderful women with guitars making wonderful, moving music. Rosie Thomas, Mindy Smith et al. File Kate Walsh in that category. Her debut, Tim’s House, is warm, hushed, consistently beautiful, and incredibly intimate.

Iron And Wine – Flightless Bird, American Mouth
Sub Pop, Iron And Wine’s label, has asked for the link to be removed. Happy to oblige. There are free I&W downloads on Sub Pop’s homepage, including the very wonderful “Naked As We Came”.

Cary Brothers – Jealousy
Like Iron & Wine, Cary Brothers is a Garden State soundtrack alumnus. Their first full album is, er, very nice. Soundtrack-friendly stuff for Zach Braff movies and Grey’s Anatomy, which in my world is a recommendation. This track is more Snow Patrol than the Shins.

Powderfinger – Wishing On The Same Moon
I’ve always liked Powderfinger (a name I seem to never be able to type correctly), but never was a huge fan. Dream Days At The Hotel Existence might change that. Every song is strong, drawing heavily from ’70s rock, as does my album of the year so far, Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky (yeah, right, like fucking punk never happened).

Crowded House – Don’t Stop Now
I’ve mentioned the new album (due our on July 10) before. It’s more a Finn solo effort than a typical CH album. This track is one of those that exhibit the old Crowded House sound.