Sunday, December 27, 2009

Decade: 2009 - The Year That Would Not Die

I knew going into 2009 that it was going to be an exhausting year – there was just a lot going on, both personally and professionally – but nothing that an adult couldn’t handle. And my way of dealing with stress is… well, you know.

Winter in Paris (Sort Of):

Ever since I first heard Edith Piaf singing in the background at some fancy-schmancy restaurant I was trying to avoid getting thrown out of - waiters in tuxes, no menu, dining by a living room fireplace - I was smitten. Being somewhat of a procrastinator/cheapskate, it took thirty years and five bucks (cheap date!) to consummate my smittenship.

And a tragedy of sorts - Virgin closed two megastores in my town. (More tragic was their idea of a going-out-of-business sale - prices that were still higher than the everyday prices at my favorite record store, which is doing quite well thank you very much.) The single disc “Voice of the Sparrow: The Very Best of Edith Piaf “ probably wouldn't satisfy the typical Edith Piaf fanatic but it suits me just fine (except that the CD is flawed and the last song craps out on me. The same thing happened to my son’s “Legend” by John Lennon, bought from the same store. No wonder the bastards went out of business.) She’s got that joie de vivre and je ne se quoi and all those other few remaining things we don’t yet hate about the French.
---------------- Now playing: Édith Piaf - La Vie en rose
via FoxyTunes

Spring is for Jazz Lovers:

John Coltrane “Live” at the Village Vanguard is your typical JC album, if there is such a thing. Again, I thought I'd get that great song I heard on the radio twenty years ago, thinking perhaps it was "Chasin the Trane." I could swear there was a “train” (or “trane”) in the title. Well, wrong again. But it's never a waste with JC. This one fits neatly between “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme”. I'm just proud of myself that I didn't go off the deep end and get the 4CD expanded version.

Oliver Nelson's “The Blues and the Abstract Truth” has me digging a little deeper into jazz, past the obvious greats, to some lesser-knowns, and why not? Like Avis, they try harder. This early-sixties record boasts an incredible lineup (Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, Roy Haynes, etc.) great sound, accessible tunes, but with enough of a twist to keep things interesting. Definitely worth checking out.

Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto, Featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim

And why didn’t Astrud (Ms. Gilberto) get her name on the cover? After all, she’s the (admittedly non-professional) singer. You’ve heard them. Remember “The Girl from Impanema”? You could play it in the morning, or for dinner guests, but not, for God's sake, after dinner. You'll put everyone to sleep and then you'll never get rid of them. You'll be tempted to put them up for the night. Don't. Get them up and out with the Hold Steady and Gogol Bordello records I told you about. They'll never bother you again. Ever.
---------------- Now playing: Antônio Carlos Jobim - The Girl From Impanema
via FoxyTunes

I Have No Class(ical Music):

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But it’s taken a back seat to pop and jazz.

I read somewhere that Holst's “The Planets” is one of the most popular classical music pieces for people in my neck of the woods. I’ve gotten CDs for dumber reasons than that, so I picked up the one by the Berlin Philharmonic (I’d put the German spelling, but then you might think there’s a harmonica on the record, and I’m almost positive there isn’t one) with Simon Rattle conducting. This one’s got a bonus disc of other space oriented pieces by other conductors. This is just the type of gimmick to pull in ignoramuses (ignorami?) like me. It’s pretty cool, but you have to keep adjusting the volume, because Mars and Venus, as you might expect, are not on the same page. It takes me months or even years to get into some jazz and world music. It may take a millennium for classical music. But in the meantime, this one won’t make you run away screaming, or sleeping.

The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos – “Chant”

This is the tenth anniversary bonus edition. (Not of the music, dummy. Of the major cash-in on said music just this past century.) Two CDs are more than I need but I can’t pass up a bargain. Is it me or are these dudes singing the same song over and over again? (I wonder if they ever thought of hiring a drummer?) For all I know, they just put two copies of the same disc in there.

In any case, I smell a rat, and suspect the whole thing is a scam, dreamed up in the 14th century, to entice me down this branch of speculation, just to waste my (and now your) time. Morning music. Early morning. Maybe even before those Requiems.

Father's Day!

Ah, my favorite day of the year, when my family has no choice but to let me do whatever the hell I want. This year I spent it in the backyard, listening to the music they got me. How do they know what to get me, you ask? Oh, they know. I make sure of it. Three words: Amazon. Wish. List.

My biggest problem with rap music is that it forces you to listen. As important as the sound may be, it’s the words that matter. Whereas I can listen to and love a pop record for months before I ever understand the lyrics, rap doesn’t give me that luxury. De La Soul’s “Three Feet High and Rising” is very smart hip hop from the late eighties. They don’t fit into any fifty-something’s idea of what rap music is - they’re more nerds than thugs, which makes for a nice surprise. So I’ll need more time with this one.
---------------- Now playing: De La Soul - The Magic Number
via FoxyTunes

How about an album of Dylan covers that won’t make you yawn? Well, you start with great but obscure songs, and then you don’t get all serious about it. That’s how McGuinness Flint Coulssen and Dean came up with “Lo and Behold”. I admit that I prefer most of the originals, but then again I’m a “Basement Tapes” fanatic. But for anyone not familiar with these songs, it’s a revelation. The singing is a bit too high, and some of the music isn’t very adventurous, but these guys had the right idea.

---------------- Now playing: Coulson, Dean, McGuiness, Flint - Eternal Circle via FoxyTunes


Okay, school’s out. Time for some fun.

Sometime’s a record is so good that I’m reluctant to get something else by the artist, for fear that I’ll be disappointed and feel like a sucker. Belle and Sebastian’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister” was one of the great records of the nineties, and I’ve been wondering which of their several other records I should try. Then I spot “Tigermilk” – their first album, but released in the US years later. Legend has it that this was a final project for a music class they were taking in college. (All I ever did was a term paper.) It’s a bit more tuneful, if that’s possible, than “Sinister”. It’s also a bit less profound, but so what? Tuneful will keep me coming back. Ah, the trials and tribulations of coeds! The highlight for me is the warm, loving "I Don't Love Anyone". Only the disturbing cover prevents me from showing it to company.

---------------- Now playing: Belle and Sebastian - I Don't Love Anyone via FoxyTunes

Pavement was/is a nineties lo-fi, noise-rock group whose approach was to play and sing in tune most of the time. Having gotten their first record, “Slanted and Enchanted”, way back when, I knew what to expect from “Brighten the Corners”, and settled in for about a dozen listens before passing judgment. They dare you to hate them, and there are times when I take them up on it. But I’ve probably listened to it more than any other record this year, if only to get to the bottom of the damned thing. So I guess the joke’s on me. I’d recommend it, but I’m tired of getting those funny looks.

---------------- Now playing: Pavement - Date With Ikea via FoxyTunes

Birthday Overdose:

Did I say Father’s Day was the best day of the year? Yes, because on that day I share the burden of having a good time with all my no good, beer drinking brethren. It provides the solidarity and support needed to keep the guilt away, and the cover to annoy the rest of the population as a group.

Not so birthdays. You’re on your own, brother, as your family watches you sink under the weight of expectations that you know how to enjoy yourself. Sometimes it all collapses and the pathetic charade is revealed. Then, even the Amazon Wish List isn’t enough to save you (or your family).

Maybe it was an end of summer blues. Maybe it was the there’s more to life than music feeling that overcame me. Maybe I’m just done. But I immediately regretted getting The Mekons, the Streets and DJ Shadow. Now I think I get why - I already had something by each of them, and thus was flouting my main shopping basket culling rule (link). Was I lowering my standards and opening the floodgates to even more, and possibly more mediocre, CDs.

Too late now. These guys better pony up.

The Mekons made one of my favorite rock and roll albums in 1989. It was imaginatively titled “Rock and Roll”. “Fear and Whiskey” (really, “Original Sin”, which incorporated F&W and extra stuff) was an earlier, rawer record that had some fierce rock and roll, country and avant garde spoken word mishmashes. It was a little more daunting so I decided to keep my Mekons records spaced out by ten years or so. “OOOH!” is short for Out of Our Heads. It leans more to the country, songish side, but is quite sharp. Still sinking in.

---------------- Now playing: The Mekons - This Way Through the Fire via FoxyTunes

Ten years ago, I got DJ Shadow’s "Endtroducing..." (on the same time as “If You’re Feeling Sinister”!) which was also one of the most potent records of that decade. Now that “Tigermilk” had panned out, I decide to dip in for DJ Shadow’s second record, “The Private Press”. DJS samples hundreds of records, shatters them into a million pieces, and re-assembles them to form something new. It's also not quite sunk in yet (“Endtroducing” took some time, too) and it sounds a bit too much like the first (after all, where do you go from there?) but I've learned to give him some time.

Right now, The Streets first album “Original Pirate Material” is sounding way over-rated. I really enjoyed their second one “A Grand Don’t Come for Free”, which seemed funnier and more tuneful. OPM reeks of self-importance, which comes in handy when the music itself is a little lacking.

Some families are made up of Jedi knights. Some not. But like my father before me, I took my son to the record store. (Okay, dad would have brought me to the corner bar, but whatever.) One of his favorite bands – The Used - was playing there, and I got to browse. That’s where I found Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica”. This provided some relief because it took the edge off “Good News for People Who Like Bad News”. And like that record, it’s a real “album album” in that it has variety – some good tunes, some challenging cuts, that all hang together very well.
---------------- Now playing: Modest Mouse - Third Planet
via FoxyTunes

By now I was feeling that while everything was good, nothing was Great. I had to reach outside of the decade.

Although we can agree that there was a lot of great music made in the sixties, it was not all necessarily crowded together on the same albums. It was a time of singles, and you could only expect great albums from the major artists. So any album outside of that select group is automatically suspect. To my great delight I sometimes find exceptions to this rule.

It’s 1968, and The Zombies’ “Odyssey and Oracle” - their last stab at a hit after a several year dry spell - sinks like a stone. Two years later, “Time of the Season” becomes a hit. But it's too late - the Zombies are no more. Decades pass, and word finally gets around that “Odyssey and Oracle” is a wonderful record. It’s aged quite well, and there's not a bad song on it. I’ve got the one with the ten bonus cuts, all worthwhile and then some. Even the lyrics are good. Highly recommended.

---------------- Now playing: The Zombies - Care of Cell 44 (stereo) via FoxyTunes

Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” starts off well enough, and there are some intriguing tunes, but when you give more prominence to the flugelhorn instead of the guitar, don’t expect a big fan base. This is okay. But then the singing is , well.... not that there's anything wrong with it.

Young cousin Michelle is making me look bad, talking classical music, dropping composers names and all. Concerto this, Opus that. Hey, I’m the adult here! But next time I’ll be ready for her. I got Mahler’s Second Symphony, per her recommendation. I plan to get every record she ever mentions just so that I can say “Oh yes, I’m familiar with that one…” (Maybe I’ll challenge her to arm wrestling instead…) Anyway, Gustave’s an emotional guy and he does deliver the goods. You don’t get bored. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.


This is the time for song based records that artificially inject magic into what should be a magic time of year. What can I tell you? I need all the help I can get.

And if your idea of magic is the story of a couple from hell slowly destroying themselves, the Mountain Goats “Tallahasseeis just for you. Wow, these guys don’t mess around. John Darnielle doesn’t skimp on the words or over arrange the music. His thin, high voice might be annoying if not paired with striking music and oh so sharp lyrics. Funny too, but dark…

---------------- Now playing: The Mountain Goats - Tallahassee via FoxyTunes

You’ve heard of Richard Thompson, right? He’s been around for ages – playing with Fairport Convention, which did rock tinged versions of English folk ballads and Bob Dylan songs. He left in the early seventies and has been making solo records ever since. So he’s got a career that spans almost six decades, and you’re wondering where to start. I can think of worse places than his first record with his then wife Linda, “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” (1974). It’s all here: the songwriting, the guitar playing, the singing (Linda Thompson has one of the great voices in pop music, and even Richard sounds good.) With its accordion when needed, even my mom would like this record. It’s worth checking out anyway. It might be a great one.

---------------- Now playing: Richard and Linda Thompson - Little Beggar Girl via FoxyTunes

Avett Brothers – I and Love and You

The title song is great, and it was instrumental in making me break one of my golden rules – just because you like the song you heard on the radio, don’t buy the CD because you’ll end up hating it when they play it to death . Besides the album may not be as good. Okay, less a rule than a voice inside my head. The jury’s out on this. It’s certainly tuneful enough. Maybe a little too pretty and polished. But it’s full of feeling, and that’s worth a lot.

I can hold onto a dollar, but it’s hard to resist those “You’ve got a free CD in your cart” offers. I must act. And Radiohead’s “Kid A” has been hanging out on my “to buy” list for some time (along with at least a thousand others) so it wasn’t anything pressing. No sooner do I get it when I find out that Rolling Stone has declared it Album of the Decade. I didn’t realize they were monitoring me that closely. Well, this came out in 2000, and it took me until the very end of 2009 to hear it. Oh, yeah, I’m all over this decade.

---------------- Now playing: Radiohead - Everything in It's Right Place (Head of the House) via FoxyTunes


This is a special time in my house, when we each watch in horror at what CDs the other family members receive. And since these same family members are both perpetrator and victim of this practice, it can be the source of a year’s worth of recriminations.

That amazon wish list heads off those problems for me, if not them. Some are not so lucky.

My gifts included Manu Chao’s hit-them-with-everything-you’ve-got world music “Esperanza: Proxima Estacion” and The Xx’s spacey, spare debut record. I’ll let you know.

Then there’s the gift card to that record store, which might mean yet another record before the years over. So I can’t even sum up a year, let alone a decade.



Richard and Linda Thompson



Mountain Goats

Lo and Behold


DJ Shadow

The Streets

Don’t Play in Front of the Guests:

Neutral Milk Hotel

Too Soon to Tell:

Just about everything else.

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