2016 Albums

My Favorite Records of 2016

I’m sitting and listening to the thudding bass and wailing vocals which kick off the new Childish Gambino record, “Awaken, My Love!”, as I consider the yearly slog through the exercise of ranking albums. This album certainly makes a strong case and, being freshly released in December, it has a decided edge over a few great releases that might’ve slipped off the immediate radar. But that’s what we’re attempting to assess, isn’t it? The question isn’t, “What albums did you like?” The question is, “What albums are truly noteworthy?” This album, with its unabashed references to Funkadelic and Prince might well belong on that sort of list. I’ll let it spin and see if it comes back around as we talk.

I’ve harped on giving up this year-end thing so many times that I’m bored with the standard excuses about feeling compelled by the quality of the material or wanting to offer a rebuttal to other lists. I’m not going to lie, I like to look back and see what has landed in my collection and heart. I do not like ranking items. How can I compare a cultural cornerstone artist to an up-and-coming musician with only a couple albums in her catalog? It’s patently ridiculous. So don’t look for rankings here. No bullet points or whatever, either. Consider that method off limits and don’t try to interpret the sequence of my narrative as an order of preference.

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Megafaun with Grandma Sparrow @ DC9

Grandma Sparrow is a new project from Megafaun’s drummer, Joe Westerlund.

It’s a wild, trippy, work that runs more akin to 200 Motels Zappa than what you might expect from Megafaun. Sporting costumes to represent various characters in the lysergic nursery school narrative, Westerlund leads the band and the audience on a wacky journey that must be witnessed.

Grandma Sparrow Flies

The band that Joe has backing him is killer (Canine Heart Sounds from Durham, NC) and their efforts reveal that this is no lark of a comedy show. The music is serious and swings quickly from what could be a psychedelic spin on Alice Cooper, “This Is My Wheelhouse”, to a “Twelve Tone Lullaby”.  Watch for these guys to come around.

Check out a track here.

Megafaun with Justin Vernon

Megafaun with Justin Vernon

Next up was Megafaun. They’ve basically been on hiatus while each guy does their own thing and, aside from these dates this week, that hiatus isn’t over any time soon. So this was special. Their old friend Justin Vernon (Bon Iver (in case you live under rocks)) had pulled them together for a thing this weekend and they turned it a week of rehearsals, hanging out, and three public shows. (Tonight they play Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, NY. If you can go, GO.)
The four piece band took the stage with Brad and Justin switching off bass & guitar throughout the night. I’m not going to pretend to be an objective rock journalist here. I love this band and I’ve gotten to know these guys a little bit and I could not be more biased. They played great songs and they fun they had on stage radiated out into the crowd who was also having a great time and watched rather attentively. Continue reading

Matthew White – Big Inner

I know you can’t help
That your smile is the brightest
It’s hard to look away

That (almost) haiku that opens Big Inner, the debut release for Richmond, VA band leader, composer, and beard enthusiast, Matthew E. White. The beard thing is, of course, a joke, but the rest is serious business. Founder and composer for the Richmond collective, Fight The Big Bull, Smith has stepped out in front with this album and may find that people won’t want him to simply direct from behind anymore.

My Copy of Big Inner

Those lyrics kick off the slow swaying opening cut, “One Of These Days” which seems, at first, to be a simple soul number. When White begins humming what may be the second half of the verse, one might mistakenly think he’s already out of ideas. But then the horns swell into the mix, the refrain comes along and dammit if there isn’t a haunting choir on the bridge. Before the tune ends there’s even some strings.

Deceptively simple might be the trademark of this album. Judicious mixing keeps so much at bay that would probably overwhelm a listener if White simply pushed up the faders. This is true of many albums but, on Big Inner, many of the tracks are busting at the seams with horns, strings, an excellent rhythm section, straight ahead soul backing vocals, a full on choir and more. “Big Love” pushes more of these out front as the driving tempo is built to carry the bombast. It starts with a (baritone?) sax bleating in the distance before the groove engages and is followed by White’s soft spoken vocals. Two minutes in, the cut reaches the feverish pitch of backing vocals, strings, and hand claps that is the refrain. Then comes the break down. White is smooth and convincing as he declares:

Girl, I am a barracuda
I am a hurricane

I believe this sort of thing used to be called “blue-eyed soul”. I don’t know what color White’s eyes may be but he’s definitely got some soul. His voice breaks slightly as he sings “Darkness can’t drive out darkness. Only love can do that,” on Jimmy Cliff’s “Will You Love Me.” And, as the band rises up behind him, you know that the vocals are sincere. Continue reading

Spring 2012 Mix

Spring has sprung and that’s as good a reason as any to offer to my readers & friends a mix of some of the music that I’ve been jamming lately.

Woods – Skull – 2011 Summer Tour Split 7″ (Woodsist 2011)
The Cosmic Dead – The Spaceman – Psychonaut (self-released 2011)
David Bromberg – Diamond Lil – Demon In Disguise (Columbia 1972)
Matt Valentine – Hit The Trails – What I Became (Woodsist 2011)
Megafaun – These Words – Megafaun (Hometapes 2011)
Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence – Little Hands – Oar (Columbia 1969)
John Hartford – Back In The Goodle Days – Aereo-plain (Warner Brothers 1971)
Flaming Lips with Neon Indian – Is David Bowie Dying? – s/t (EP) (Warner Brothers/Lovely Sorts Of Death 2011)
Woodsman – Inside Outside – Rare Forms (Lefse/Firetalk 2011)
Brian Eno – St. Elmo’s Fire – Another Green World (Island 1975)
Akron/Family – Sun Will Shine – Set Em Wild Set Em Free (Dead Oceans 2009)

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Top Ten Albums of 2010

It’s that time of year again and I’m finally ready with my favorite records of 2010. These have been selected by an utterly subjective process of constant listening to almost exclusively 2010 releases for the past couple weeks. This has allowed me to rediscover a couple records that perhaps came out early and have since fallen off my radar (none of those made the cut) and also to catch up with some that I missed altogether and, of course, the more recent releases. Here you’ll find all kinds of music (Country AND Western!) but really only a sampling of the stuff that I really like to listen to and hope to listen to for years to come.

Here we go:

10 – Tame Impala – InnerSpeaker
Hows about of Australian psych-pop to kick things off. Seriously., a record like this is a good place to start anything. This record (and band) really captured my imagination in 2010 and it all started with the terrific single, “Solitude Is Bliss”. There are weirder bands out there (Stardeath And White Dwarfs, anyone?) but these guys perfectly blend rough edged psyche with the polish of brit-pop.

9 – Aloe Blacc – Good Things
Proper soul music that nails it in every category: vocals, lyrics, performance, and arrangements. Elements of Heron and Mayfield are recognizable in this rapper-turned soul singer latest record. Oh, and how about that riveting take on VU’s “Femme Fatale”? A good friend hipped me to this and I’ve enjoyed it from the first note.

8 – Admiral Radley – I Heart California
Jason Lytle (who topped this list last year) teamed up with two members from Earlimart and made their first appearances at this year’s SXSW under the guise, Admiral Radley. The record soon followed and complements Lytle’s catalogue with his humour and slacker psych rock. The songs are great, and the hooks are strong, making this a fun listen.

7 – Junip – Fields
This record came out-of-the-blue for me. a few friends were raving about it and I figured it would be just another indie record that I’d play once and move on but I quickly fell for its charms. Krautrock trances, indie-pop melodies and dizzying production that includes vocals nestled tightly in the mix make this my favorite driving record of the year- as long as the sun is up or I’ve had my coffee. Sleepy isn’t the word but it can induce a meditative state if you are susceptible to such a thing. Myself? I might be; but I dig it, too.

6 – Broken Bells – Broken Bells
Danger Mouse has led a semi-charmed life on this site of late. This project, a collaboration with The Shins’ James Mercer, continues the win streak with a collection of entrancing songs. The hooks are stellar and the whole record pays off with repeat listens. This is another one which did take a few listens to fall for the entire record (although the opening cut, “The High Road” is one of the more infectious pieces of the year) but it begged additional listens and the reward is rich.

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