Friday, December 31, 2010

Best albums of 2010... sort of

So I decided to check out what my, uh, peers at Blurt included in their year-end lists, if only to make sure I didn't forget some great album that wowed me back in May that I completely forgot about. Turns out, I'm really out of touch when it comes to rock albums this year. I mean really out of touch. I own about two of the albums that made their Top 50 list. The rest of them I either didn't know about or only read about. Or in the case of Joanna Newsom, I just ran the other way. With all that time I spent keeping abreast of jazz albums, I became clueless re: the big releases of 2010. Except of course for the Arcade Fire. Duh.

But, um, didn't the New Pornographers release a new album this year? Sure, any shanleyonmusic reader knows that I'll love it BUT DIDN'T ANYONE ELSE?

So here's my list.....

1. Pernice Brothers - Goodbye Killer (Ashmont). To put it effusively, Joe Pernice is one of the best lyricists around. He knows how to tell a story, which sounds like a writer's cliche, but when you listen to him, you realize why people say that line in all sincerity.

2. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (Merge). This is probably the first and last time a #1 Billboard album will ever make my year-end list (well, maybe Double Fantasy would've counted), but everything everyone says about this album is true. And though I didn't grow up in the suburbs, I do relate to the feeling of your past slipping away as you cling heavily to it. And the trick with that online video? Brilliant.

3. New Pornographers - Together (Matador). Surprise, surprise. After 2007's Challengers, which dipped a little too much into the mid-tempo department, this album came back and found the group sounding pretty solid and upbeat.

4. Nels Cline - Dirty Baby (Cryptogramophone). It's not really a rock album. But it's not really a jazz album either, though both downbeat and JazzTimes gave it a glowing review. It's a work of art in itself AND it sounds good. Refer to my review on this site for more details.

5. Kathryn Calder - Are You My Mother? (File Under: Music) In which the keyboardist of the New Pornographers shows that she has some great songwriting ideas up her sleeve that everyone would be fools to ignore her (yeah, that's a hint to you). This album is beautiful and at times poignant.

6. Nellie McKay - Home Sweet Mobile Home (Verve). A lot of times I get really really into an artist's album while writing about it, only to cool off after the deadline is met. Though the faux-reggae and salsa almost gets too clever for its own good, McKay's new album holds it together, with lyrical depth (with claws out, in some cases) and hooks that I wish I wrote.

7. Susan Cowsill - Lighthouse (Threadhead) OK, this actually made the Blurt list at #50. Much of its weight rests on "River of Love" the genuinely moving tribute to both Susan's brother Barry (who wrote the song) and the power of love in general, but you can't argue with a power like this. For awhile I thought I was reading too much personal stuff into it - my bandmate's father's death, the eventual death of a close friend - but not so. This song is heavy. And the album proves that when life deals you a shitty hand, there's only one thing to do - Get up the next day and work your way back.

8. Moby Grape - Live (Sundazed). It's more a historical album than one that should be in a "new" list, but it makes you realize that as good as the Grape was on its first album, they were even better live. And when I say "better," I mean "with few peers."

9. Richard Barone - Glow (Bar/None). The one-time singer of the Bongos returns with an album of pure pop, in all its splendour.

Ok, let's leave it at that. I'll be honest, I wanted to include Azure Ray's Drawing Down the Moon on the list because I remember really enjoying it when I reviewed it for Blurt. But the band's label couldn't be bothered to send me anything more than a stream of the album, so I haven't heard it since I wrote the review in July. Hey guys, I'm not going to sell your CDs. If you really want to make sure of that, just watermark them. Hell, don't even do it. Just say you did and slap a sticker on it saying that I'll be in big trouble if I do anything with the CD. If I like the music, I'll hold onto it. If I don't I'LL THROW IT AWAY. There are already plenty of good CDs that I don't listen to cluttering up my house. I might as well just pitch the lousy ones. Or maybe I should mail them back to you.

Anyhow, that's my warped view of 2010 releases.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

End of the Year Lists

With the end of the year comes Best Albums of the Year lists. For the second year in a row, I had the honor of being tapped for the Village Voice's tally of best jazz albums of the year, in addition to my annual contribution to JazzTimes.

Funny thing - this year, I felt like I was fairly on top of things, hearing a lot of the "big deal" releases, as well as some really great ones that were flying under the radar. Still, I was hard-pressed to think, "Yeah, that one ought to be on my list" as I considered a number of them. Then there were some albums that I didn't get ahold of until after the deadline had passed, that would have definitely been on the list. (Jason Adasiewicz's Sun Rooms, most recently. When we got back into town after Christmas, that and the latest Exploding Star Orchestra album were waiting for me!)

Don't listen to the naysayers who keep saying that the music industry is dying. My friend Will made the astute observation several months ago that despite all those alarmist articles, you keep seeing deluxe 180-gram vinyl reissues by labels like Four Men With Beards, while I keep trying to keep abreast of things like the latest amazing ECM release, as well as the latest hijinks from folks like Mr. Adasiewicz and his Chicago peers. There's still plenty of music coming out. Maybe there just aren't as many people who care passionately about music as there was 20 years ago.

Anyhow, I'm digressing. Here's a link to the Voice, with a couple interesting overviews of the year and its music.

STOP THE PRESSES...............................................
I just went to the JazzTimes website to look for some year-end stuff, and came upon this obituary for Dr. Billy Taylor, who died on Tuesday. There is a huge void in the world now without him. The world lost too many musicians this year. Goddam.

Okay, back on topic....... here's the critic's list from JazzTimes. Scroll down and see my list, some of which might be familiar to anyone who reads this blog.

Finally, here's a review of a song-by-song reworking of the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat by a group that includes most of Mostly Other People Do the Killing. It came out last summer, but I didn't get around to reviewing it until recently.

On the rock side of things, I didn't get my End of the Year list into Blurt, so I'm going to fashion one here and put that up tonight. Maybe after a drink or two.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

CD Review - Sarah Wilson - Trapeze Project

Sarah Wilson
Trapeze Project
Singer-instrumentalists usually need to beware. When push comes to shove, the voice always seems to get prominence over the instrument. Just ask Diana Krall or, for that matter, Karen Carpenter (who apparently swung pretty hard when she didn't have a mike in front of her, according to a CD that surfaced a few years ago). And of course, more people remember Nat "King" Cole's velvet voice and overlook how he tore the house down at the first few Jazz at the Philharmonic shows with his piano work.

Trumpeter Sarah Wilson takes a few vocal turns on her second album, Trapeze Project, which dropped back in September. What's interesting about her double-duty is how she approaches both of them in a similar manner. Her trumpet tone is strong and crisp, and she plays her themes without much extra dressing. The same can be said about her singing style. When Wilson's voice appears, doing a wordless support vocal in "She Stands in a Room," it adds extra depth to a simple, pretty melody. (As someone who usually abhors the dreaded wordless vocals, I found this one really captivating; similar in a way to what Hank Roberts did with Tim Berne in the '80s.)

Wilson puts down the trumpet and sings lyrics in "Melancholy for Peace" and "From the River." Despite some simplistic imagery, she delivers the lyrics in a direct and honest way that elevates them and maintains attention. In the early part of the former song, she phrases a little like Suzanne Vega, but her voice takes on more grit. A cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" casts the moody post-punk classic as a slow, lounge tune with just bass and some clarinet flourishes. It was bound to end up being done jazz style sometime and although there isn't any nudge-nudge irony that might come from a Bad Plus interpretation, the jury is still out on this one
Along with the similarity between her horn and voice, Wilson's greatest skills seem to be arranging and composing. She assembled a top-flight band of Myra Melford (piano), Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Jerome Harris (bass) and Scott Amendola (drums). Wilson's trumpet (occasionally muted) and Goldberg's clarinet blend into some amazing sounds, sometimes like an oboe or soprano sax. The melodies reside in fairly simple melodic territory, like the bright folky melody of "Blessing." Then Goldberg steals the show as he nearly derails the consonance of it, with Amendola providing the appropriate kick. In "Possibility," it's Melford's turn to run wild, tearing up another upbeat melody.

All the above moments work well, but Wilson the soloist frequently takes a backseat to her bandmates. In the final quarter of the album she barely stands out at all. When she does solo in other tracks, her tone is strong but she plays it melodically safe. There's nothing wrong with that, especially with all that Wilson coaxes out of the group, but it feels like she's holding back when she has more to say.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

CD review: Dynamaxion Quartet - Sympathetic Vibrations

(I started writing this review early last week, but fell asleep at the laptop. The next day, I had a fever of 100, then Christmas came. Hope everyone reading this had a good holiday. I'm much better know. I think.)
The Dynamaxion Quartet
Sympathetic Vibrations

Some musician - Frank Zappa or Elvis Costello, depending on who you ask - once said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. " It's a clever statement, but like "Jazz is dead," it really has no value other than to rile people up unnecessarily.

The Dynamaxion Quartet has come together in an effort not to dance about architecture but to actually play it, in a matter of speaking. The group takes its big inspiration from architect/inventor/"practical philosopher" R. Buckminster Fuller. Their name in fact comes from a word Fuller invented after discovering that he used the words "dynamic," "maximum" and "tension" frequently. Drummer Gabriel Gloege, the composer and guiding force in the quartet, has attempted to harness Fuller's confluence of ideas by having the band create a sound that goes beyond the limits of a standard chordless quartet. The pieces don't strictly follow a head-solos-head structure. Tenor saxophonist Mark Small and trumpeter Michael Shobe wind up playing over each other in several of the tracks. In "At One," they start out trading eights, then fours, then ones until they're right on top of one another. This never comes across as busy or overly analytical, and although it doesn't sound unprecedented by other pianoless quartets, the music is always moving and never spare.

Rhythmic displacement keeps "Night Market" shifting. Small begins played a seven-note riff in 5/4, which he regularly tosses to Shobe when the tenor takes a solo. Underneath Gloege plays time signatures that keep changing where the downbeat falls in the riff. Repetitive pieces like this can grate after a few minutes, but this one leaves the listener so interested in where things will land that there's no time for it to wear out its welcome.

In his quest to give all his bandmates equal footing, Gloege frequently gives bassist Dan Fabricatore an equal voice in the melody. "Spring Equinox" begins with his bass leading the way before the horns come in. Later, as he does in a few other tracks, Fabricatore plucks his solos with a lot of authority in his tone. "Summer's End" also has an interesting beginning and end, with a slow hymn-like melody sandwiching Gloege's off-kilter groove that feels like 8/8.

For further thematic influence with Sympathetic Vibrations, Gloege drew on the work of photographer Asca S. R. Auli. He spent in year in Hong Kong, Paris and Manhattan, taking pictures of all sorts of scenes, which illustrated each city while still leaving some details unclear, a quality that appealed to the drummer. The nine tracks on the album are broken up into three sections, each named for the city.

While aesthetic concept seems to factor heavily into this album, it isn't mandatory to know the backstory of the work, nor does it really elevate it any further. The Dynamaxion Quartet is creating their own niche for a two-horns-and-rhythm quartet, one that doesn't need to probe into the Ornette approach, but who knows how the tear it up with a fresh take on bop (closer "Fulton Fish Market," which cleverly sandwiches a line from "Criss Cross" into its theme) when they feel like it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas songs and the war

I've been bombarded with Christmas music since the weekend after Thanksgiving. Yes, there are times when I've said that I will be glad when December 26 comes, so I won't have to hear it for another year. But that's largely due to the very limited scope that these piped-in stations have. Why do play four versions of "Baby It's Cold Outside" during an eight-hour period? Louie Prima's "What Will Santa Claus Say" is great - but the same question applies. I realize these stations are limited in their scope, but jeez oh pete.

On the other hand, we've heard a lot more Johnny Mathis this year than last year. Two of my co-workers and I used to regularly get on the store p.a. and dedicate any Johnny song to the other two whenever he came on. Now he comes on so much that the joke would be old and unfunny if we kept up. But hearing him is a good thing. It puts me in a good frame of mind to work and to think of the good things about the holidays.

Since the station that's usually played is limited to big band swing and recent stuff that fits that format, I've yet to hear the Royal Guardsmen's "Snoopy's Christmas." Stop me if I've blogged about this before, but I notice a detectable subtext in that song that elevates it from its status as a cornball bubblegum hit - and the third installment in a set of songs based on a cartoon character.

Observe - in 1914 as World War I was going on, British and German soldiers on the battleground held a ceasefire on Christmas day and celebrated the holiday together with a dinner. In the song by the Royal Guardsmen, the Red Baron has a chance to shoot Snoopy down, but instead he tells him to land and "Snoopy was certain that this was the end/when the Baron cried out, 'Merry Christmas, my friend.'" And they too have dinner together.

Released in 1967 as the Viet Nam war was raging, the song could be considered as a statement about the mood of that era, even though it's about as far from "Eve of Destruction" as you could get. And today as a useless war continues, there's something emotional about this song to me.

Also the pay-off line in "I'll Be Home for Christmas" - "If only in my dreams" - has a little more gravity when thinking about soldiers who can't make it back for the holiday, much like the World War II soldier that was probably meant to be the focus of that song. (The line in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that changes depending on the version - about "Come next year we all will be together... until then we'll have to muddle through somehow," - could be about the same thing. But I think it might come from the Judy Garland movie Meet Me in St. Louis, so it has a different meaning.)

Or maybe this steady stream of holiday tunes is just putting this in my head too much.

And another thing, how often does Bobby Vinton really spend "Christmas Eve in My Home Town," aka Canonsburg?

On my homefront, the needle on our turntable got bent and I didn't get to order a new one in time for the holidays. So we can't play any vinyl, which means I probably won't hear the Monterey Brass album (see my oft-spammed Sing a Kris Kringle Jingle entry from a few years ago) outside of my head this year.

But at least I had a chance to turn Donovan onto the Singing Dogs' "Jingle Bells," which also makes me remember my friend Pam fondly.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New York Times catches up with me

Playing right now: Puttin' On the Ritz - White Light/White Heat

(Check out the JazzTimes website in a day or two for an explanation)

I'll never admit that my reviews are extremely timely, appearing the same week as a disc is released, but I was quite surprised that I covered an album several weeks before the Sunday New York Times. This past weekend, Nate Chinen wrote a capsule review of Ches Smith & These Arches' debut album - which I reviewed on November 24! Imagine that: me, a few weeks ahead of the prestigous Times, beating a guy like Mr. Chinen to the punch.

What was even more surprising is that one week earlier, the Times ran a similar capsule-size review of the debut album by Bizingas, another New York weird/jazz/improv group, which also features Smith as drummer. Chances are that review came from another writer, because that spot has a different writer each week. I'm hoping to get to Bizingas here too.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

New Anthony Braxton, with Ben Opie

Playing right now: Mike Reed's Loose Assembly - Empathetic Parts (482 Music)
(Just the thing to get you moving in the morning, especially with guest star Roscoe Mitchell on board. I ordered it and it came in the mail yesterday.)

Yesterday Ben Opie stopped by my workplace and handed me a copy of the eagerly-anticipated duets that he recorded with Anthony Braxton while he was here in 2008. It's a two-disc set of two Braxton compositions, with a few extra writings dropped in.

I probably should hold off on details and save that for a review, but I will say it's good. Ask Ben the next time you see him.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Nellie McKay hugged me.....twice

Sometimes talking to musicians inspires me to take on the persona of a starry-eyed fan. Or maybe that mindset is constantly below my mental surface at all times. Either way it explains the title of this entry, which exists with tongue firmly wedged in cheek, as Ms. McKay would hopefully expect.

Anytime I introduce myself to a musician after having interviewed them by phone and then writing about them, I always wonder about two things - will they remember me among a sea of recent interviewers, and will they object to what I wrote about them? So it was a nice surprise when Nellie McKay stood up from her spot at the merchandise table, leaned across and gave me an appreciative hug after her first show at the Warhol on Saturday. She was as charming offstage as she was on.

And her first show, where she played tunes from Normal As Blueberry Pie - A Tribute to Doris Day overflowed with charm. And clever arrangements. It was great to hear those songs done by a small group and not only bring out all the nuances of the writing, but do that while keeping the focus on the vocals. She had guitar, bass, drums, trumpet and tenor sax along with her piano, though the horns only played here and there (they had just joined the tour very recently). When they did "Sentimental Journey," it sounded nice and slinky, with mallets on the drums and Bill Frisell-ish guitar from Cary Park - yet all music pointed towards Nellie. She played one non-LP song that had something in the lyrics about "early autumn" which sounded amazing, both as a song and starkly beautiful performance.
The one time things veered towards the cute side occurring during "A-Tisket A-Tasket," which was built for that anyway. McKay got a little squeaky during the call-and-response section with the guys. Right before this song she also quipped that not only could she not find the museum (they were late getting back from their Green Tree hotel), she could find the piano as she stumbled away from the center stage mike to her keyboard. (See previous Nellie installment for reference.)
For the second show McKay changed from the proper, Doris Day-inspired pink dress to a dark red get-up that fell off the shoulder and fit the mood but still would've looked okay on Ms. Day. She virtually played her new Home Sweet Mobile Home album from start to finish, which is fine because it's a really strong release. "Bruise on the Sky" makes an excellent, foreboding opener (with a line that rhymes "follow" with "Charo") and leads right into the uke-driven "Adios" with its biting chorus line, "May you lie yourself to sleep tonight." When she does reggae, it has serious weight to it, and even the light-hearted "Bodega!" (which has an inverted exclamation point at the beginning) has some serious moral underneath.
I was worried during the slick funky "No Equality" when the band took a right turn and launched into a scorching version of "Purple Haze," and McKay started doing hippie hand jive moves (not the first time during the set). If she starts trying to rock out, this could be bad, I thought. Turns out it was just a digression before hitting the last riff of the original song. That changed everything from a potential train wreck to a witty coda.
McKay has the between-song banter down pat. She talked about her dog Charo - the one referenced in "Bruise on the Sky" - describing her as being very much like Joan Crawford, going on to imitate the dog doing a classic bit from The Damned Don't Cry. Later she made bassist Alexi David do an imitation of William Shatner reciting "Till There Was You," which was spot-on. She also forgot the words to some of the non Mobile Home songs that worked their way into the set. Yes, she's prolific as all get-out but when I was her age, I never forgot lyrics. Those tunes included "David" from her first album, which drew applause as it started, and "The Dog Song."
I was the first person to the merch table and she started to tell me that if I'm ever in New York to look her up, or she'd buy me a drink if I wanted one.... I wanted both but there was a line forming, led by a guy who was already holding her hand, so I put her off.
Which blows because I could've used another drink.
Call me, Nellie. Your publicist has my number.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Nellie McKay outtakes

Nellie McKay is playing in Pittsburgh tomorrow at the Warhol Museum. I previewed the show for Pittsburgh City Paper and you can find it here.

Since it was a short article, a lot of good quotes were left on the cutting room floor, so to speak. My favorite is this one, when I asked her about "No Equality," a song from her new album that sounds like a mix of '70s soul and Schoolhouse Rock to these ears.

Me: "No Equality" - are you singing from the perspective of someone who dumping someone else rather than someone who got dumped?

Nellie: Oooooh no, it’s not that specific. I think it’s more general than that. It’s about hierarchy. It doesn’t have to be a personal relationship. It can be with any group of people. There always seems to be a pecking order.
I’m constantly thinking about society and the world and how to…somehow avoid that. The only way I can think of is if everybody has constant marijuana use. It’s a very peaceful drug. I think that eliminates hierarchy quite a bit, or at least makes you don’t care about it.

Me: So you’re going on record here as being pro-pot?

Nellie: Yeah, I don’t that’s much of a revelation. My mother got busted at Burbank airport earlier this year and I’ve never been prouder of her.

Dave's not here.

Then again, I'm not sure what to believe. When she mentioned that she came to Pittsburgh during high school with the All State Band - or something like that - I asked her what year, and she told me 1972 in a voice that implied, "I don't want to give my age away."

She wasn't born until 12 years later. In the back of my mind I knew something was up but didn't feel ready to call her on it.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

CD Review: Henry Threadgill Zooid: This Brings Us To, Volume II

Henry Threadgill Zooid
This Brings Us To, Vol. II

On "Polymorph," the fourth of five tracks on the new Henry Threadgill album, the AACM veteran and his quintet hit upon a theme that has a slightly repetitive shape to it. The other tracks have sections that could be considered heads, because they feel different from the moments where several players are improvising over one another (around one another may be a more accurate description). Threadgill's entrances in each piece bring things together after everyone's multi-directional blowing, but his alto saxophone in "Polymorph" is the one place where he sticks with one concise idea and restates it a few times. After listening intently to Zooid, this moment almost feels like a reward.

Pi Recordings released Volume 1 of This Brings Us To last year, and the follow-up comes from the same sessions. This is not simple music, and clearly the touring the group did prior these sessions sharpened up their cohesive qualities. Drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee and bassist Stomu Takeishi are definitely into a groove on the opening 10-minute "Lying Eyes," but not the traditional in-the-pocket kind of way. Kavee accents and supports, and it's hard to feel a time signature in his playing, while Takeishi plays intense assymetrial lines in the title track with a strong intensity.

The perplexing thing about the album is that its leader doesn't come across as such. If given a blindfold test, most people might think this is a Liberty Ellman album. The guitarist (who also keeps popping up as a top notch studio engineer on numerous albums, by the way) always seems to be the one at the front of each piece leading the group. Threadgill on the other hand, lays back. He plays a brief flute line early on "Lying Eyes" and returning later for a solo with a lot of open space between phrases. He doesn't show up until the final few minutes of the title track to steer things towards Jose Davila's tuba coda.

This is only a criticism if one expects something clear cut and easy to digest, and Threadgill is not the type to do that anyway. It's better than to try and discern what course that this band is taking. It almost makes you want to hear each instrumentalist isolated to clearly hear what they play and how it relates to the quintet. Or how it contrasts and still works.

The last track on the album is titled "It Never Moved," ironically because it does move. Davila (who also doubles on trombone) gets into a groove with Kavee, and Threadgill and Ellman play parallel solos before the guitarist really takes off in a pithy statement. Most of the album up until this point sticks the same middle ground dynamic level, the only real problem with the set because that levels off some of the intensity and makes the ballad-like moments feel just as subdued as the more pointed ones.

But again, Threadgill is not here to make it easy. He's here to intrigue, which this album does with each deep investigation.

[Addendum: There some word or phrase in this review that has made it subject to numerous spams of all types. I'm dismantling the comment section because even though Blogger deletes them immediately, I'm getting tired on the endless barrage of emails which include the comments.]