Sunday, September 25, 2016
My review of Luis Filipe Fortunato's Live and Pure, from Dogma Musicae in Portugal, is now live at Positive Feedback Online. As you can see, this review was not of the usual LP or CD or even Blu-ray audio disc, but of a beautifully packaged thumb drive in a gorgeous wooden case. Plus, Freddy Rodrigues of Dogma Musicae has turned me onto a beautiful musical genre--Fado!
You can read the review here.
Thursday, September 15, 2016
It's been a while since one of my columns for The Smoking Jacket has appeared--things over at Part-Time Audiophile have been busy during a particularly hectic trade show season! This one, titled "The New York Smoker," was actually written right after we got to Syracuse in April, so in my eyes it seems dated in one particular respect--the local cigar store, Tismart, is now the place where I hang out several times per week. I've become Norm from Cheers.
You can read the new column here.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
My review of Michael Kiwanuka's Love & Hate also just appeared on Positive Feedback Online. Again, this has been a strong year in music and this is the perfect example of yet another album that took me by complete surprise.
Ask me about my Top 5 favorite bands of all time, and Wilco will always slide in there somewhere. I've felt that way pretty much since the first time I heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot back in 2002 when it was first released. I still remember the first time I heard that remarkable album--I was sitting in my living room in my townhouse in Tujunga, north of LA. I still remember the system--Spendor SP100 speakers, Naim NAP 140 power amp, Naim NAIT 2 acting as preamp and phono pre, Naim CD3 CD player, Rega P25 turntable with a Rega Exact cartridge. About halfway through the album I said to the others in the room, "This is a really great album, isn't it?" The others agreed.
Instant Wilco fan for life.
Wilco also gets extra points for staying true to vinyl. The last Wilco CD I bought was YHF--it's been vinyl ever since. But here's why Wilco is so cool about the vinyl--they were the first band I knew of that included the CD and the download codes when you bought the LP. The first time they did this, I thought it was a mistake. The CD's not included on their new album, but you still get the download code. Maybe that's just a sign that CD is dead. It's disappointing not to have the CD for my car, but that's the only disappointing thing about Schmilco.
(You did see my post about that Wilco Schmilco Project turntable, right?)
Schmilco was culled from the same studio sessions as last year's Star Wars. It's easy to see why the band separated the results into two separate releases. Star Wars was a whimsical, slightly out-of-control carnival ride of an album, both experimental and daffy. Someone has probably already said something like "The band had more fun in the studio making this album than any of the others." Schmilco, however, is quieter and gentler. It's mostly acoustic. In fact, it sounds sort of alt-country. No Depression. The type of music that made them famous. There's an Uncle Tupelo-esque quality to it.
That's not to say it's downbeat, or even that serious. While most of that unbridled Star Wars whimsy is confined to Schmilco's macabre yet hilarious comic-strip cover, the songs here are all whole and beautifully executed. I've heard some early criticism of the album that Wilco the band doesn't get to show off very much due to the minimalist arrangements--Nels Cline fans seem particularly anguished--but I disagree. Perhaps it's because I'm an audiophile and I've been trained to respect the space between the notes and all that crap, but when you come right down to it there's plenty of harder moments to satisfy such as the rollicking, psychedelic "Locator" and the angular, noisy "Common Sense."
But in many ways this is the most beautiful, complete and consistent Wilco album in a decade--and that's as much to the band's credit as to Jeff Tweedy's, even though he really is front and center. Sometimes the band gets obsessed with covering multiple bases with albums such as A Ghost Is Born and The Whole Love--not a criticism as much as a personal preference. Wilco just really connects with me when they write a great song and play it well and then follow it with ten or twelve more songs just like it. Schmilco has a healthy dose of catchy, memorable songs that will rank among their best--the folky "If I Ever Was a Child," the bluesy "Nope," and the cheerful "Someone to Lose." The band even pulls off a hat trick by closing the album with three strong songs--"Shrug and Destroy," "We Aren't the World (Safety Girl)" and "Just Say Goodbye"--which for me add up to the most solid outro since the last three songs on OK Computer. Basically, there's no filler at all.
I'm impressed that these guys are still putting out albums this good. It's been 14 years since YHF, and I still get a rush from opening up a new Wilco LP, cueing it up and having no idea what to expect. I feel like I'm on a roll right now--I keep hearing great album after great album in 2016. If a Wilco album gets released in a certain year, it usually makes my top ten list almost by default. This time, it's got some serious competition from Ingvild Koksvik, Angel Olsen, Michael Kiwanuka and The Avalanches, but I still think it will be near the top. And I still have a giant stack of music to get through. I can't wait to see what's next.
Friday, September 9, 2016
Angel Olsen is a girl from your past. You didn't really appreciate her in the moment, but now you're a little older and a little wiser and you realize your life would have turned out a little differently if you had just cocked your head and looked at her the other way. Sure, she was edgy. Her bangs were cut a little too short. And she had much better taste in music than you. You didn't take a chance because you thought she was a little risky at the time. She would have broken your heart or, even worse, you would have broken her heart and she would have made life miserable afterward before finding someone much better than you. Then she would have written a bunch of songs about you, and they'd all be hits, and you'd go back to your job at the rental car agency.
After listening to Angel's new album over and over for the last couple of days, I feel that buzz, the one you get after you've just met someone and a few hours later you realize you can't stop thinking about them and you start devising a plan to run into them again. Her new album, My Woman, is either timeless or old-fashioned--I can't decide which one. It's the kind of album we used to love hearing when we were young. All the songs are engaging in that much-smarter-than-average pop sort of way--Angel's singing about love and loss and memories and dating and all the things that matter to young people, and people who used to be young and still remember how much it sucked. Her lyrics are straightforward, but Hemingway-esque in their hidden complexity.
This is one of those albums I discovered accidentally on Tidal--I almost didn't get past the first song, "Intern," because it's basically just Angel's voice backed by synthesizers. What follows, however, is both bad-ass and adorably original. "Never Be Mine" sounds like an old Roy Orbison song that was re-written for a female; it's also beautifully recorded and drenched in reverb. "Shut Up Kiss Me," however, was the point where I realized I was developing a serious crush--the hurried and desperately truncated way she says "Shut up! Kiss me! Hold Me Tight!" will make you want to instantly reply to her that maybe it is a good idea if you two get back together.
Going back to the old-fashioned, timeless statement I made earlier--that feeling hits you in many subtle ways. For instance, this is the classic rock album where you have six shorter and more energetic songs on Side A, the "singles" so to speak, and four slower, more expansive and ambitious songs on Side B, the "deep tracks." The album's epic stand-out, "Woman," starts out as a dreamy ballad, like Julee Cruise minus the kitsch and the melodrama, and then builds into a full-out rock jam before slowly drifting into an ambient coda that's more 2016 than anything else here.
But other than that, this album could have been made in 1979, or 1986...or right now.
Angel started out playing alongside Bonnie "Prince" Billy and her earlier two solo albums have been characterized as folky. Nothing about My Woman feels folky at all. This is smart, confident and exciting pop/rock sung by a woman who seems mysterious and assertive and relentlessly cool and still might curl up into a ball and cry when no one is around. She's Debbie Harry in Parallel Lines, or Liz Phair in Exile in Guyville. But she's also ol' Roy Orbison, big of heart, full of sorrow and incredibly impressive in every conceivable way.
Thursday, September 8, 2016
Man, I have a lot of music to review right now. The pile of CDs next to my laptop looks like three-hour old game of Jenga. My mystery source for some of the experimental jazz I've been reviewing has finally revealed itself--they had to ask for my new address because stuff kept shipping back to them. Once I confirmed my New York post office box, the new CDs starting coming in fast and furious-like, three and four at a time.
I also sent Morten Lindberg of 2L Recordings a note with my new address. I figured the same thing happened, that his latest recordings were being shipped from Norway, passing through customs, and then getting sent all the way back unclaimed. But Morten actually informed that he hadn't sent anything in a while because they were busy working on several new releases. Last week, all of them arrived at once!
Plus I keep discovering great new artists on Tidal, which in turn compels me to walk over to The Sound Garden record store here in Syracuse to see if they have it on vinyl. They usually do. My review of Michael Kiwanuka's Love & Hate should be appearing in Positive Feedback Online soon, and just yesterday I fell in love with Angel Olsen's My Woman and this morning I had to fetch Wilco's Schmilco. So I have some work to do.
This Ellington LP sort of fell through the cracks in the last few weeks. I bought it from the Acoustic Sounds website as sort of a consolation prize when they sold out of their Julie London reissues at the Newport Show last June. I ordered Julie Is Her Name, Vol. 2, and I felt like getting one more. Hmmmm, I thought, what's the latest magical release from Chad Kassem's catalog? I turned out to be this one, Blues In Orbit. I was a little torn at first--Duke Ellington is one of my favorites in all of jazz, but I wasn't very familiar with this 1960 LP. I looked up some reviews and found that while it's considered a solid release in Ellington's catalog, it isn't really one of "the greats." But even a good Duke recording has to be better than the great albums of most, right?
I'm glad I purchased this one, however. It's not perfect--it has a very loose structure to it that was the result of two somewhat spontaneous late night/early morning live sessions at Columbia Studios on December 2, 1959. The overall sound quality is a bit veiled compared to some of Duke's classics. And I'm not in love with the rather stodgy variation on "Duke's Place" that landed here. But other than those minor complaints, this album swings like nobody's business. It's got a full, crazy and lively blues sound that will make your toes tap and your head bob. It also has moments where individual instruments LEAP out at you, almost in your lap--Ray Nance's trumpet, Booty Wood's trombone and especially Harry Carney's whimsical, breathy bass clarinet.
This one's a keeper, an instant classic for my demo stock at trade shows and such. It's the epitome of the late night blues album, captured on the fly, and overflowing with life and humor. If you don't believe me, listen to Ray Nance's wild, untamed violin solo on "C Jam Blues" and listen to the entire band laugh afterwards at the sheer audacity of it. It's a classic moment in a classic album.
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Alejandra O'Leary's new CD All I Know is a fun and miraculous thing, a straightforward rock album with subtle tinges of "New Wave"--remember that term?--that place these songs squarely in the early to mid-'80s. Her bright, charming and honest voice might remind you of anyone from Debbie Harry to Martha Davis to Terri Nunn, kittenish with one stiletto heel pushed into your thigh. Each of these 11 songs are extremely polished in a slightly edgy way a la Parallel Lines, more Black Jack than Bazooka. All I Know is, for lack of a less cliched term, a breath of fresh air because it reminds you how good this type of pop can be when delivered by the right people. The cover even features a very cool Klaus Voormann drawing--this is about creating an impressive musical pedigree.
I reviewed her last album with the Champions of the West, Heartspace Timepiece, back in 2014, and I found it a tricky album to review because it didn't make a notable first impression. I still felt like I was listening to someone obviously influenced by bands like The Motels and Blondie. I made the mistake playing in a car filled with people who weren't into it, so I was dismissive, but I came back later and started discovering all of Alejandra's intriguing secrets.
This album, however, was immediately engaging. She sounds assertive and relaxed in comparison to HT, and just a few minutes into the rousing and powerful opener, "Doubtless," you'll have a strong idea of who she is and where she wants to go. Much to her credit, she stays the course.
One side note: I talk a lot about Portland musicians and performers, mostly because I made a lot of contacts in the couple of years that I lived there. When I discovered that Alejandra is actually a resident of Portland, MAINE, I wondered if I caught that on the older review. I actually referred to her as a Detroit performer. Perhaps the recent move is what gives these songs more depth, more wisdom and more experience.
While she surrounds herself with great musicians (while assuming the bulk of the guitar duty on her own), but it's her voice that's always front and center. It can be perky and sexy and then suddenly there's a dramatic shift where she's singing directly at you and throwing her whole body into it. Her lyrics also contribute to this unique album--the words aren't unusually poetic on their own, but she sings with conviction and makes each song hers. (I know, that's been said about a million times about singers, but this time I mean it.) On "Lighthouse," for example, she gives a new lover the following instructions, which double as a warning:
I’m a spotlight following you.
Yeah I tell the night what to do.
I got me some powers by day
I’m gonna show you how
to strip them away.
At first it doesn't quite dig in, and then you hear her sing it and suddenly you realize she's talking about putting up walls while secretly hoping someone has a sledge hammer available. She has a lot of hidden depth, which is a pleasant surprise in an album so immediately likeable as this one.