Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Josh's Listening Journal, 8/31

A thousand thank-yous to the Knox County Public Library for keeping my stereo full of great music lately. A few recent listens that I haven't blogged about yet:

Lizz Wright, Dreaming Wide Awake
Finally caught up with Lizz Wright's new one; again, many thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for his recommendation .The album is a pleasure-- even more low-key than Salt was, but definitely the sharper and stronger of the two.Wright's voice is a thing of beauty; these songs mostly have very simple, straightforward lyrics, but when Wright sings them they sound like profound poetry. And producer Craig Street realizes that to hinder or distract from her voice in any way would be doing the music a huge disservice, so he wisely keeps the arrangements sparse and spacious. I love how Wright doesn't just cover these songs, but she re-interprets them. Her slowed-down version of "Stop" may take some getting used to-- at least for this diehard Joe Henry fan-- but I am impressed by how the song takes on a whole different meaning in Wright's hands. Great stuff.

Buddy and Julie Miller, Buddy and Julie Miller
I love Buddy Miller. I really do. His most recent solo work, Universal United House of Prayer, was one of my favorites of 2004, and his work with Emmylou Harris is always a pleasure. His collaboration with wife Julie on the other hand... well, let's just say I love about half of this album, which happens to be the half that Buddy contributed. Julie Miller is a fine songwriting talent, but she takes too many easy outs here; as profound as her classic song "All My Tears" is, there's just no excuse for couplets like, "You make me think I could miss you/ You make me think I should kiss you." And her voice... well, it's a wee bit shrill, to say the least. This is hardly a bad album-- or even a mediocre one-- but it's not nearly as consistent as Buddy's solo works.

Collin Herring, The Other Side of Kindness
I really hope we'll be hearing much more from this guy in the near future... on a major label, ideally. Herring's independently releases sophomore album is full of brilliant songwriting-- he tackles relationships and lost love with as much wit and grace as Aimee Mann-- and exciting stylistic shifts, jumping from loud, raucous garage rock to weepy country ballads to psychadelic stompers. The only thing that prevents this album from being a real knockout is the production; unfortunately, the guitars are turned up so loud that Herring's great songwriting mostly just gets lost in the mix. What this guy needs is T-Bone Burnett!

Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster
Any album that allows you to hear Ron Sexsmith, Ollabelle, and Mavis Staples on one disc is automatically worthwhile in my book. This multi-artist tribute to America's first great songwriter (you know him from "O Susanna," "Camptown Races," and many others) is sometimes a bit sleepy, but all in all a beautiful, memorable collection of great songs performed by great musicians. (The only real blunder is Michelle Shocked's spectacularly awful reading of "O Susanna.")

And, as usual, I've saved the best for last. How come nobody ever told me about...


Neko Case, Furnace Room Lullabies.

Dadgum it, folks, I can't believe it's taken me three years to discover this album. I absolutely love country music, and, simply put, this is one of the most compelling, powerful country recordings I've ever heard. It bests any of the recent Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn albums in its intensity and focus, and the production and songwriting are first-rate. What's amazing, though, is Case's voice; she grabs you from the first syllable of "Set Out Running" and doesn't let go until you've finished the last song, your heart torn out and stomped on. (In a good way.) This is fiery, impassioned country music with an electrifying rock edge, and if you, like me, enjoy roots music but have yet to discover this great album, it's time you were introduced to the joys of Neko.

Musical Graffiti, 8/31: U2 selects tourmates; O'Riley reworks Elliot Smith

Two quick headlines and then I'm off to go to class, work on my columns, and pick up a couple of CDs that I have on reserve at the library. I'll try to weigh in on some recent listens either tonight or tomorrow afternoon, but for now:

1. U2 has announced the opening acts for the first few shows of the third leg of their Vertigo tour... and the news ain't too pretty.

2. Classical pianist Christopher O'Riley-- perhaps best known in some circles for his two instrumantal piano tributes to Radiohead-- is branching out with a new collection of Elliot Smith songs. And after that: Instrumental piano versions of Nick Drake, REM, and Interpol!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Critical Condition: Death Cab for Cutie

Today's the big day for Death Cab for Cutie fans, but Pitchfork has some bad news. In a rare moment of complete level-headed sanity, everyone's favorite indie rock 'zine admits that, contrary to popular opinion, Death Cab for Cutie is not the greatest pop band of our generation. Says critic Joe Tangari:

In a way, it's comforting to know what you're getting: Four or five songs you'll treasure, four or five you'll tolerate, and a pretty good band sticking to their guns. In another sense, it would be nice if a band reaching for a larger audience had a sound that matched that sense of ambition.


Rob Theakston also sounds a bit disappointed in his review at All Music Guide:

But those hoping for a bit more -- for the bar to be raised higher -- might find this a mildly predictable exercise in Gibbard exorcising the demons of Phil Collins that haunt him. Plans is both a destination and a transitional journey for the group, one that sees the fulfillment of years of toiling away to develop their ideas and sound. But it's with the completion of those ideas that band is faced with a new set of crossroads and challenges to tread upon: to stay the course and suffer stagnation or try something bold and daringly new with their future. Which road they'll take will make all the difference.
And the general critical consensus seems to be... meh.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Lucinda Williams readies Knowing

Yeee-HAW! Less than three years after her latest and greatest album, World Without Tears, Lucinda Williams is already talking about her next studio album, Knowing. Says Billboard:

Notorious for taking her time between album releases, Williams says she has two dozen songs already written and recorded in a rough mix state for her next studio project, which is tentatively titled "Knowing" and may be released in early 2006.

"I guess I just had a good spell of writing," Williams says. "But I'm not sure how I'm going to do it because I have a lot of country stuff and I have some blues/gospel things and pop and rock. It's just all mixed up. And now, we've been out playing them on the road live and they're going over really well."

Among the songs expected to get stage time during Williams' upcoming six-week tour North American tour are the old school jazz-flavored, Nina Simone-style "Where Is My Love?," the edgy "Come on" and the pop/rock track "Real Love."

Williams said she also has a traditional country duet track, "Jailhouse Tears," which is decidedly in the George Jones-meets-Loretta Lynn motif; she suggested Hank Williams III or Jack White as the type of singer needed to pull off the song.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

First Impressions: The New Pornographers


Pure pop bliss. It's an expression I've already used once this year-- when describing Andrew Bird's The Mysterious Production of Eggs, still 2005's best album-- and now I have reason to use it again. Twin Cinema, the latest disc from New Pornographers, is one of the most talked-about and critically acclaimed new releases of the year, and it is indeed a strong album.

These fourteen songs are all tight, efficient pop gems, filled with melodies that sink their teeth in and don't let go. The hooks in these songs-- mostly written by Carl Newman-- will remind you of every great pop band you've ever heard without ever sounding like any one band in particular. The production is excellent, using minimal polish and effects so as not to distract from the remarkable songcraft.

There's a lot to love about this album, but, after spending a little more than two days with it, I find myself being especially drawn to the songs sung by Neko Case. I'm unfamiliar with Case's acclaimed solo albums, but I'm going to have to remedy that immediately; she's got a smoky voice and magnetic presence that make her performances the most memorable on the whole album.

If I have any complaint with the album, it's that it doesn't quite feel like... well, an album. Perhaps it's the fact that these tracks don't explore many new textures or tones; perhaps it's the fact that there's no real center or focal point here; or perhaps it's just that the album is a little too long. Whatever the reason, Twin Cinema sounds more like a greatest-hits parade than a cohesive work of art.

But perhaps that will change once I spend more time with it and begin to dig into the lyrics. For now, suffice to say that, though some critics are overstating this record's greatness, it is a very strong album, and a probably contender for my Best of 2005 list.

Musical Graffiti: Sufjan! Arcade Fire! Radiohead! Much more!

Several noteworthy newsbytes this afternoon:

1. Sufjan Stevens reigns again! According to MetaCritic, Illinois has reclaimed its title of Best-Reviewed Album of 2005 from New Pornographers' Twin Cinema.

2. Arcade Fire has a side project? Apparently so... meet Bell Orchestre!

3. Beck is coming to the big screen!

4. Rolling Stone is raving and raving about the new Kanye West album... and yet, somehow, their review has all but diminished any interest I had in hearing the project.

5. Radiohead has taken up blogging! Visit Dead Air Space for frequent updates from the studio as they document the recording of their new album.

6. Dashboard Confessional is out to rid himself of the emo tag... and the only reason I care is because he's working with producer Daniel Lanois to do it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Kanye guess who's opening for U2?

Suddenly, I find myself very interested in hearing the upcoming Kanye West record, Late Registration. Why? Well, The Detroit News has three good reasons:

1. It's produced by Jon Brion, renowned film composer for Magnolia, Punch-drunk Love, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

2. The album is said to mark quite a genre-hopping departure for West:

In a Q&A session afterwards, West made it clear he looked outside of hip-hop for inspiration for "Late Registration," saying he and Brion spent hours in the studio listening to old Beatles and Jackson 5 records.

There are enough musical flourishes on "Late Registration" to make any audiophile's ears perk up, which is not surprising, considering West and Brion's influences: There's pipe organs on "We Belong," a 20-piece orchestra on "Gone," a harpsichord on "Diamonds" and a string section on "Hey Mama."

3. Perhaps the best reason of all... rumor has it that West is going to be opening some dates for U2 on the third leg of their Vertigo Tour!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Who put the OtR in BRMC?

Geez... who put the Over the Rhine in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club?

T-Bone Burnett, apparently.

I remember when Bono and The Edge were hyping this band back when their first album came out. I also remember listening to their self-titled debut and being fairly bored with their noisey, Sonic Youth-inspired brand of art-rock. But it would seem that their new album, Howl, find them taking a sharp stylistic turn; The Washington Times reports:

What does it take for a band to completely and utterly scrap its sound, turn 180 degrees and buy a new sonic wardrobe? In the case of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, a West Coast trio that had specialized in noisy, ambient alt-rock, it takes a little "recording assistance" from roots-rock singer-songwriter and producer extraordinaire T-Bone Burnett.


"Howl," the band's third album, was "written, produced and performed by B.R.M.C," according to a prideful credit in the liner notes. But "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" boardman Mr. Burnett's fingerprints are all over this disc, a retro experiment in acoustic blues, gospel and folk. Gone are the sludge and white noise of the band's acclaimed 2000 debut and its 2003 follow-up, "Take Them On, On Your Own"; its new fetishes are harmonica, Hammond organ and natural hand claps.

And then there's Tim Sendra's review at AMG:

Gone are the insistent tempos, the snarling vocals, and the sheets of guitar noise. Gone is the hostile and often belligerent pose of the first two albums. Gone is the influence of noise rock bands like the Velvet Underground and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The band has embraced classic American music, namely country, blues, and gospel. It's dramatically expanded its sound to the point where you wonder if the albums that preceded this were some kind of reductionist prank. The band has a light touch and sense of drama and arrangement here that seems to have come out of the blue. (Check the credit to T-Bone Burnett for "additional recording assistance" for a clue, though.)

Country, blues, and gospel? T-Bone Burnett? Wow... suddenly, this is at the very top of my must-hear list.

Sufjan dethroned!

Egad! Sufjan Stevens has been dethroned by that porno band! The New Pornographers' Twin Cinema is-- for now, anyway-- the best-reviewed album of 2005.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Critical Condition: Death Cab! New Pornos! Lanois!

Okay, folks... it's official: I hereby declare 2005 the Year of Ambitious Pop.

This year's crop of new releases has reminded me of everything I love about pop music. We've already heard the whimsical, imagination-cranked-to-eleven wonders of Andrew Bird; the complex, relentlessly brilliant geography lessons of Sufjan Stevens; and the literate, storytelling mastery of The Decemberists. And we're just getting started; later this year, we're set for new releases from hook-writer extraordinaire Ron Sexsmith and chamber-pop poet Sam Phillips.

Plus, a week from tomorrow, we'll be hearing the fifth release from indie pop darlings Death Cab for Cutie. The bad news is that I've read my first review of their new album, Plans, and it's very mixed. The good news is that it's just Rolling Stone, so it matters very little.

And we mustn't forget that tomorrow is the big day for fans of the New Pornographers. Twin Cinema is already winning rave upon rave; just check out this glowing report from Pitchfork.

And finally... abandoning the whole pop theme... Pitchfork has also weighed in on the recent Daniel Lanois release, Belladonna. And it ain't pretty.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Critical Condition: New Pornographers

It's been a slow weekend for new updates, folks, and for that I apologize. My time has been drained by other activities and obligations, not to mention other writing projects. (If you're the moviegoing sort, you may be interested in my reviews of Broken Flowers and The 40-Year-Old-Virgin.) I'll jump back into regular blogging tomorrow, and I hope that in the next few days I'll have time to share some thoughts on new-ish albums by Lizz Wright, Collin Herring, and New Pornographers.

Speaking of which... Pop Matters is raving and raving about the upcoming disc from New Pornographers, Twin Cinema. Boy I hope they're right.

Also, let me mention to you regular readers that you are not only allowed to leave comments at this blog, but encouraged to do so. I'd hate for this to become my own little online soapbox; heck, I've got a whole Web site for that. I'd much rather this be a discussion, so feel free to share your thoughts, complaints, arguments, and recommendations any time you wish.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Musical Graffiti: Radiohead update!

How fitting... a few years ago, Radiohead embarked on what they called the No Logo tour, and now it seems as though they're recording a "no logo" album. The band entered the studio yesterday to put in some more work on their upcoming seventh LP, and apparently they're doing so without the backing of a record label.

Billboard has the story:

Radiohead has been recording on and off at its own studio since early 2004, but it is unknown how much time has been devoted specifically to the as-yet-untitled new project. "We don't take time off very well," guitarist Jonny Greenwood previously told Billboard.com. "We're enjoying it still, so why just go home and do nothing?"

A representative from the band's Oxford, England-based management firm Courtyard Management tells Billboard.com that for the current sessions, Radiohead is "putting some ideas together" to "see where they want to go with the next step musically."

The band is also moving forward without label representation, having fulfilled its recording contract with EMI with the 2003 release of "Hail to the Thief." That album debuted at No. 2 on The Billboard 200 and has sold 932,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Josh's Listening Journal, 8/18

A few first impressions:

Lizz Wright, Salt
I have to thank my friend Jeffrey Overstreet for this one. He recently blogged about Lizz Wright's new album, Dreaming Wide Awake, and called it a shoo-in for his 2005 Top 10 list. I haven't yet had a chance to hear that album, but if Wright's debut disc, Salt, is any indication, it'll likely earn a place in my list, as well. Wright is a phenomenal talent; Salt is a soulful blend of jazz, folk, and R&B that puts Norah Jones to utter shame. The songs themselves range from very good to great, but Wright's spectacular singing makes each one sound like a masterpiece. Her backing band-- which includes the great drummer Brian Blade-- is equally impressive, bringing to the table everything from Cuban to African jazz influences. A truly memorable disc; the closest comparison I can make is Joe Henry's Scar, but Wright is really in a league of her own.

Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism
In preparation for their new album, Plans, I'm finally catching up with the Death Cab. And I'm thoroughly underwhelmed; yeah, they have some memorable melodies, and yeah, the lyrics are much richer than what you'd usually hear from an indie pop group, but this is hardly the masterpiece that many critics made it out to be. The music, while melodic, is neither inventive nor varied, and the lead singer sings everything in the same thin, flat voice. It's not bad, but there are dozens of much better indie pop albums out there-- like, say, The Shins' Chutes Too Narrow. Or the new Holopaw disc.

And, last of all... the real showstopper of the group:

Woven Hand, Consider the Birds
If ever there was a singer/songwriter who embodied the spirit of Flannery O'Connor, it's David Eugene Edwards. He sings his songs with all the fiery passion of Bono, and, with his band 16 Horsepower, he made a name for himself in the realm of rough, ragged roots-rock. Now, under the banner of Woven Hand, Edwards goes solo to craft his fiercest, most astonishing collection yet. Consider the Birds is a dark, spooky affair, with provocative religious imagery abounding. It's a work of soul-shaking intensity, and it's likely to set fire to your stereo with holy fire.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

2005 New Release Calender

Here's an update on all the upcoming 2005 releases that I'm keeping my eye on. Mind you, not all of these are musicians that I'm a fan of, but all are albums that have, for whatever reason, caught my eye, and I'll likely make the effort to hear just about all of them.

New Pornographers-- Twin Cinema (August 23)
Death Cab for Cutie-- Plans (August 30)
Sexsmith and Kerr-- Destination Unknown (September)
Charlie Sexton-- Cruel and Gentle Things (September 3)
Switchfoot-- Nothing is Sound (September 17)
Iron and Wine/Calexico-- In the Reins (September 20)
Fiona Apple-- Extraordinary Machine (October 4)
Jamie Cullum-- Catching Tales (October 11)
Bruce Cockburn-- Speechless (October)
Derek Webb-- How to Kill and Be Killed DVD (October)
Nellie McKay-- Pretty Little Head (October 18)
The Fiery Furnaces-- Rehearsing My Choir (October 24)
Derek Webb-- Mockingbird (December 26)

Albums rumored to release this year but without an official release date:
T-Bone Burnett-- The True False Identity
Sam Phillips
Sufjan Stevens-- Rhode Island? Vermont?

So... what am I forgetting? What are you folks still eager to hear?

Signs of Paste

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has posted an excellent article on the "trend-bucking" Paste Magazine-- which is, incidentally, this writer's pick for the best music publication in print.

I mean seriously... what other magazine is going to give rave reviews to folks like Over the Rhine and Andrew Bird? And put Aimee Mann and Wilco on their cover? And dedicate their first-ever film issue to the great Wes Anderson?

Plus, according to this article, all four of the big kahunas at Paste name Sufjan Steven's Illinois as the current contender for Album of the Year. So c'mon, what are you waiting for? If you're not a subscriber, get thee to the Paste Web site and become one immediately!

Monday, August 15, 2005

Musical Graffiti, 8/15-- Fiona's new Machine, Cullum's Tales



Today's headlines:

1. Heads up, Fiona Apple fans... looks like Extraordinary Machines-- some version of it, anyway-- will finally be available in stores this October, with a sneak preview coming to iTunes today. So says Billboard:

Fiona Apple fans are already familiar with the material that makes up the artist's third Epic album, "Extraordinary Machine," having spread leaked early versions of the tracks across the Internet while waging a campaign to force the label to release them. But on Oct. 4, Apple will instead issue an entirely new version of the album, on which she has been quietly working while the controversy raged.Two cuts -- the title track and "Waltz" -- are holdovers from the Jon Brion-helmed sessions that leaked earlier in the year. Another, "Parting Gift," is a new solo piano-and-vocal tune captured on the first take. The rest of "Extraordinary Machine" was produced by Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew and is made up of the other nine songs that madethe rounds online.
...
The first "official" taste of the new album will be available later today (Aug. 15) on
Apple's Web site, which will be streaming "Parting Gift" and "O, Sailor." The tracks will be available for purchase tomorrow via Apple's iTunes Music Store.

2. Another October release to add to your calenders: Jamie Cullum's new disc, Catching Tales, releases on the 11th. His debut album, Twentysomething, was one of 2003's surprise hits-- a fun, spontaneous jazz album that shows just how stale Norah Jones' music is by comparison. Oh, and his cover of Radiohead's "High and Dry" just might be my favorite version of the song ever recorded. Here's my mini-review of that album.

The Ragbirds-- Yes Nearby

The Ragbirds. It’s the name of a band, and it almost sounds like it could be a phrase lifted from a Tom Waits song. But no, to my knowledge, this band’s moniker has nothing to do with the howling junkyard poet. If anything, The Ragbirds sound like they could be the Anti-Waits; while Waits performs his songs with coughs, rasps, and sputters, Ragbirds singer erin Zindle actually sings hers, with a voice as pure and pristine as The Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris. And, while Waits scours gutters and back alleys, assembling beautiful songs from ugly pieces of garbage, Zindle and her Birds glean the components of their music from all over the world, creating fleeting fits of beauty from the purest and noblest of sources.

Zindle is a terrific lead singer; her dynamic personality is what holds her varied, eclectic musical ideas together. But she’s not the only Ragbird. Colleagues Randall Moore, Adam Labeaux, Greg White, and Jeff Stinson bring indelible rhythms and flourishes of the exotic to Zindle’s tightly-woven, intimate folk songs. What results is rather remarkable: The Ragbirds’ debut album, Yes Nearby, is a work of astounding international eclecticism, mixing everything from reggae to Celtic to blues music—along with plenty of “world music”—into a unified, enchanting whole.

It’s also a work of great spiritual intimacy and poetic focus. Sometimes confessional and sometimes celebratory, these are the kinds of songs that Over the Rhine might record if they were to venture into jam-based, third world music. Zindle takes on the role of the searching spiritual pilgrim, but also of the fervent worshipper; she doesn’t so much sing about faith as she sings about everyday life as seen through the lens of faith. It isn’t dogma. It’s poetry.

In “Low Flying,” Zindle sings over acoustic guitars, ethnic percussion, and her own mournful violin, confessing her own wayward heart in journal-entry lyrics like these:


So this is what the heart feels like when it’s numb
I hitched a ride with just the tip of my thumb
I never knew how far away I could be

I never knew all this distance was in me


Her disease gets a name in the steady reggae groove of “Narcissick.” Here the narrator is so self-absorbed that she thinks everything from natural disasters to radio playlists is somehow connected to her:


Wild fires in the west, wild storms in the east
And I have a hard time believing it has nothing to do with me
The radio played that sad song twice tonight at least
And I have a hard time believing it has nothing to do with me

“Picture” begins as another brooding folk tune until it erupts into an explosive, celebratory jam. Here, man-made images and human imaginations are insufficient in capturing the glory of the Almighty; likewise, in the groovy sing-along “Tipi Baya,” the singer still hasn’t found what she’s looking for, and finds no answers at the courthouse or the market.


I asked at the market
For a good worth consuming
For some soap for my brainwash
A box of quick fixes

The search for truth finally yields results in the inspired “Adoration,” a worshipful, trance-like meditation that recalls Iona at their most impassioned. Here Zindle and 7-year-old guest vocalist Darby Horne trade off on lines of sweet praise:


I want to come to your house, God
And climb inside your window
I want to find you in your room
And cry on your shoulder

Zindle falters only when she turns her attention from intimate confessions to social commentary; on the bluesy “Door in the Wall,” for example, she stumbles by trading poetry for preachy generalizations:


‘Cause America’s so doped up on the entertainment industry that
Their numb-comfortable hearts will not be stirred

In the end, though, poetry and optimism prove to be the Ragbirds’ typical MO. The title of Yes Nearby—inspired by a snippet of Magnetic Poetry—conveys a sense of hope and joy in the midst of tough times. It’s a happy album, but the happiness is hard-won and well-earned. It’s more than a feeling—it’s a genuine sense of peace and assurance that stays with the listener long after the album stops spinning, and it’s proof enough that The Ragbirds are a vital new voice in spiritually exploratory independent music.

(Lamentably, Yes Nearby is not available in very many stores, but you can order it online at www.ragbirds.com)

Originally posted by Josh Hurst at Reveal.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Musical Graffiti, 8/13: Whitman on Christians and music; Arcade Fire opens for U2

Two quick headlines for the day and then I'm off to work on some reviews:

1. The always-insightful Andy Whitman has been blogging about how we as Christians should engage the arts-- particularly popular music. Folks, if you're not reading his blog, Razing the Bar, you're missing out on one of the most interesting and enjoyable music-related blogs out there.

2. Three cheers for Arcade Fire! Looks like my favorite new band has received the honor of a lifetime-- the chance to open a few shows for U2!

Friday, August 12, 2005

Critical Condition: Holopaw

Boy, Amanda Petrusich sure does love Holopaw; she's now raved about their new album, Quit +/or Fight, in not one, but two high-profile publications: Pitchfork Media and Paste Magazine. From her four-and-a-half-star review in Paste:

Like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Quit +/or Fight flirts with perfection, a cohesive collection of all-too-fleeting pleasures.

High praise indeed. And I can understand why. I've been spinning the new album for about a week now, and it's an extraordinary and extraordinarily baffling collection. Imagine 70's folk music as interpreted by Wilco, with generous doses of The Shins and Iron & Wine added in for good measure, and you might have a pretty good idea of Holopaw's spacious, atmospheric sound.

Lyrically, these guys are terrifically puzzling. Their songs take bits of fractured, found poetry and patch them together into a tapestry of riddles and abstract images. I'd be lying if I told you I had any idea what it all meant, but, like the aforementioned Wilco album, Holopaw's record gives me the feeling that there's definite meaning to be found within all these enigmas, and I look forward to spending time dissecting this album to unravel its mysteries.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Rethinking Belladonna

A month after first hearing Daniel Lanois' new instrumental album, Belladonna, my enthusiasm is beginning to seriously diminish. At first, these songs sound like strange, exotic soundscapes-- and indeed, they are. But, even after spending several weeks with Belladonna, there are only a couple of tracks that really stand out to me from the rest of the album-- and even THOSE are hard for me to remember once the CD stops spinning.

My original gushing, I guess, was premature. Here's my full review.

Many artists—like Peter Gabriel and Moby—have proven that “background music” can be just as intriguing, just as inspiring, and just as provocative as rock ‘n’ roll. Though Daniel Lanois—God bless him—has created something unique and, at times, very beautiful with Belladonna, it’s a difficult album that may be best described using two of its song titles: “Dusty” and “Frozen.”

Say yes! To the Ragbirds!


My frequent partner in listening, Jeffrey Overstreet, has discovered Yes Nearby, the mysterious, eclectic debut album from The Ragbirds.

The most engaging new band I’ve heard this year is The Ragbirds, led by erin Zindle: small “e”, big “Z.”

It’s an unconventional name for an unconventional singer. Zindle and her cohorts stir up a style-shifting row on their debut, Yes Nearby, with such enthusiasm, confidence, sincerity, and skill that it’s not hard to imagine them growing up to be one of those beloved bands of spirit and substance like Over the Rhine and The Innocence Mission. Attention, dispirited fans of the now-defunct Sixpence None the Richer: You can stop crying now.

My review of The Ragbirds-- along with my interview with singer Erin Zindle-- will be posted soon. Until then, I'll just give an emphatic "Yes!" to everything Jeffrey said in his review.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Josh's Listening Journal, 8/10

You know, this has been a pretty darn good year for new music; I'm still basking in the glow of the new Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens discs, and I've had some powerful experiences with late-night listens to the new Maria McKee album. I've also been able to get my hands on several worthwhile new releases this week, and will share some quick-draw first impressions of them here:

Nickel Creek, Why Should the Fire Die?
The new Nickel Creek recording gives us more of everything the band has been known for in the past-- in other words, it's another hearty dose of agressive, progressive bluegrass music, pristine vocal harmonies, and remarkable feats of musicianship. Unfortunately, it's also stuck in the same songwriting rut that the band was in on their last two albums. The songs here-- many inspired by the breakdown of Chris Thile's marriage-- are as dark and soul-searching as any in the Nickel Creek canon, but they sound more like high school journal entries than carefully crafted poetry. Still, for the impressive musicianship, this album is worth hearing.

Danny Cohen, We're All Gunna Die
Danny Cohen has done something that I once thought was impossible: He has come dangerously close to out-weirding Tom Waits. We're All Gunna Die is a remarkable, utterly strange collection of wonderfully warped folk songs. Cohen isn't much of a singer, but his lyrics are funny, touching, and surprisingly complex. The music is tough to describe, but, if you can imagine a marriage of Waits' junkyard-pop sound and the freak-folk of Vic Chesnutt, you might be on the right track. A very difficult album, but also very rewarding.

Ry Cooder, Chavez Ravine
A sprawling, monsterous concept album about a long-forgotten Hispanic neighbordhood in LA, Chavez Ravine is all over the place, both stylistically and lyrically. Cooder deftly hops from one genre to another, incorporating many different forms of ethnic music-- along with searing insturmental solos and numerous guest performers-- into a complicated, ambitious whole. His lyrics, while not exactly subtle, work together to tell a compelling story. This is another album that can prove hard to sit through at times, but patient, attentive listeners will find it rewarding.

Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell, Begonias
Listening to this album is enough to make this country music fan think he's died and gone to heaven. This is an impossibly beautiful album of perfect country duets, one that channels the spirit of Graham Parsons and Emmylou Harris like no album in recent memory. This album is so much more authentic, so much more graceful than any other recent country release that you'll have a hard time believing these songs were written; they sound like they've existed forever, and are tightly woven into the very fabric of American music. This one's a keeper, and one of 2005's best.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Musical Graffiti, 8/8-- Ron Sexsmith, Iron and Wine, Tom Waits!

Is there any better way to begin a Monday morning than with news blurbs concerning exciting new music releases? I think not!

1. Ron Sexsmith, one of my favorite pop songwriters (my review of Retriever), is teaming up with his drummer/cellist Don Kerr to release Destination Unknown in the US on September 6. (Soulshine reports that the album is already available in Canada.)

Sexsmith comments on the album at Amazon.com:

Although this is the first official Sexsmith & Kerr album, Don and I have been making music together since the day we met back in '87 at the Sunwheel Courier Company. Anyone familiar with my career will know Don as my longtime drummer/cellist from countless tours and for his lovely harmonies on many of my records over the years. Most of the songs on Destination Unknown were written during the same period as the ones from my last record (Retriever), but I could tell early on that this batch was a bit different and, for the longest time, I didn't quite know what to do with them. Somewhere in the middle of all this it occured to me that the song "Only Me" had sort of an Everly Brothers vibe about it and I guess the light bulb came on over my head. Don and I had already been huge fans of the Louvin Brothers and had recorded a version of their song "You're Learning" years earlier. Upon closer inspection, it seemed that eleven of these songs could benefit from a little two-part harmony and so we went to work not knowing if anyone would be interested.

2. Speaking of collaborations, Iron and Wine (my review of Woman King) is teaming up with Calexico for the release of a seven-song EP, In the Reins, in September. Billboard has the story.

3. Finally, though this isn't actually a music release, it's worth noting that Marc Montandon has compiled a massive ammount of interviews with Tom Waits (my review of Real Gone) into one volume-- Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader.

Publishers Weekly reviews it:

Covering 30 years in 40 chapters, Montandon's anthology of reviews and interviews stretches from a Waits-penned press release (1974) through an interview that the singer-cum-cult-figure did for Magnet in November 2004. In between, readers can follow Waits and Elvis Costello through some absurd leaps of logic in a conversation they recorded at a Chinese restaurant in 1989, hear Waits tell Terry Gross "I couldn't wait to be an old man," and peruse a 1987 Toronto Star review of a gritty, mood-shifting concert. "Waits was forever turning the show into something new," the critic says, "revealing another nook in his low-rent pantry." Despite the conspicuous gap between 1993 and 1999, the volume gives a vivid portrait of Waits as a person, with glimpses into the life of a composer and performer who has referred to his songs as "travelogues."

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Holy Swordfishtrombones! How did I miss this guy?

I have never heard a song by Danny Cohen in my life, but I suddenly find myself very eager to hear his new album, We're All Gunna Die. The cause of my curiosity is twofold: First, there's Thom Jurek's rave review at AMG:

In his own stubborn and savant way, Cohen is as important as Tom Waits, though he sounds nothing like him: he combines musical elements that have no business being together in song structures that make little sense to conventional ears yet he is utterly accessible and melodic. His lyrics are funny, poignant, sad and revelatory, they come from the font of human kindness, even if that kindness looks like the monster under the bed. We're All Gunna Die is Cohen's finest moment yet.

And the second is this endorsement from the blog of Andy Whitman:

Tom Waits protege Danny Cohen's album "We're All Gunna Die Someday" is weird and wonderful. He sings about the Summer of Love, Baba Ram Das, organically grown zucchini, power to the people, and then bleats like a sheep. All in the same song.

Man... two of my favorite music writers are not only raving about this guy's music, but they're comparing him to the great Tom Waits! Immediately, this album is at the very top of my must-hear list.

Has anyone else heard this record? Would you recommend it to me?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The bird is flying...

An update on the Rubber Soul tribute album that I blogged about a few days back has a Web site where you can stream the contributions from Ben Harper and Sufjan Stevens. The audio quality ain't so great, so I'll refrain from commenting on their actual quality, but I will say that good grief... the Sufjan song sounds so...well... Sufjany!

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Fiery Furnaces: Sooo hot right now!

My but those Fiery Furnaces are a prolific bunch. You'd think that they'd need to take a breather after the one-two punch of 2004's sprawling Blueberry Boat and 2005's B-sides collection EP (my review), but instead they're announcing the release of two new recordings: Rehearsing My Choir releases this October, and Bitter Tea will follow in early 2006.

Pitchfork has the full story.

Pretty Little McKay

Rolling Stone reports that genre-defying singer/songwriter Nellie McKay will release her sophomore album, Pretty Little Head, on October 18th.

I bought McKay's two-disc debut album, Get Away From Me (my review), based on a good friend's recommendation, and my reaction to it was... um... get away from me! It was a musically eclectic ride, full of surprises and unexpected stylistic shifts, but McKay's lyrics generally ranged from slightly empty to just plain stoopid.

Based on the Rolling Stone article, though, it sounds like she'll be tackling some more meaningful subject matter this time around:

Songs on the outspoken artist's Pretty include "Cupcake," which McKay says is about gay marriage, and "The Big One," "about a tenants' rights activist."

Hmmm... let's hope she tackles these topics with some degree of tact and finesse rather than dogmatic zealotry; if she works on her poetry a little bit, McKay really could be a dangerous artist.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Eels-- Blinking Lights and Other Revelations



The new album from Mark Oliver Everett—who performs this two-disc set under the banner of The Eels—is titled Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Really, though, there’s mostly just one big revelation, which is repeated throughout the album with subtle variations: Life really blows. And, chances are, it’s gonna get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

With song titles like “Suicide Life,” “God’s Silence,” and “Losing Streak,” it’s no surprise that this collection is a major downer. But don’t right it off just for being sad; I’ve made that mistake on more than one occasion in the past, only to discover that many albums that I initially dubbed as too depressing—Beck’s Sea Change and Patty Griffin’s Impossible Dream, to name just two—are in fact highly rewarding in spite of their bleakness. This set from Everett is much the same; listening to his lamentations can lead us to surprising catharsis, and even to increased empathy.

Then again, with thirty-three songs and over 90 minutes of music, this is one hefty chunk of sorrow. For many listeners, it may be a bit too much to take in one sitting. And perhaps that’s why Everett made this set a double-discer; though the whole collection may be overwhelming, Everett packs his songs with enough poignant humor and surprising stylistic shifts to make each individual disc a very manageable slice of sadness and angst.

There are even a few moments of genuine joy. (Okay, a very few moments of genuine joy.) This song cycle is a rough chronicle of Everett’s life thus far, starting with his very first day on the planet; “From Which I Came/A Magic World” celebrates our hero’s day of birth with glee, declaring that “every moment’s built to last/ when you’re living without a past.” And that’s when things begin to go downhill; in the next song, our narrator discovers the ugly truth that he is, quite literally, the “Son of a Bitch.”

Everett has cooked up some absolutely delicious pop delicacies in his day, and Blinking Lights boasts some of his tastiest concoctions yet. “Trouble with Dreams” begins with what sounds like a ticking clock before erupting into a relentless dance beat and culminating in a rowdy drums-and-organ stomp. According to Everett, a dream is not always a good thing. Sometimes dreaming is just selfish ambition: “Trouble with dreams is you never know/ When to hold on and when to let go.”

It’s vintage Eels from start to finish, and it gets this critic’s vote for the album’s best song, but, with all of Everett’s genre-hopping, that’s a pretty tough call to make. Not all of these songs fit under the indie-pop label: “Railroad Man” is a warm country-western number, colored with brilliant steel guitar and mourning the loss of a simpler way of life; “Son of a Bitch” is an elegant jazz ballad, right down to the saxophones; many of these songs are stately, pathos-laden ballads, wrapped up in a hazy sonic gauze.

More than anything, though, it seems like Everett’s goal is to start the next big dance craze. Forget the Macarena; “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)” is an infectious faux-rave sing-along, with lyrics that are either the most cynical or the most optimistic on the album (that’s for the listener to decide). The most irresistible number, though, is “Going Fetal,” a loopy dance number built around a Tom Waits vocal sample. The lyrics express—with no small amount of irony—the ultimate inadequacy of escapism:

Everyone is going fetal
If you feel like your fate is sealed
Then just get down and curl on up
Just like a little helpless pup

Everett further sweetens the deal with a couple of guest appearances on Disc 2. REM’s own Peter Buck—perhaps trying to atone for the colossal disappointment that was his band’s last record—contributes his songwriting and guitar skills to the ironic “To Lick Your Boots,” and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian gets a co-author credit for “Dusk: A Peach in the Orchard.”

In the end, though, even these stylistic shifts and surprise guest performers can’t save the album from being a little overlong and overambitious. The second disc, especially, suffers from too many ballads, and many of the album’s brief, ethereal instrumental numbers seem superfluous. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that, after an hour and a half of mostly non-stop sorrow, Blinking Lights can grow tedious, to say the least. But this isn’t just gloom; it’s beautiful gloom, and the fact that Everett can find such beauty and creativity in the fact of depression and lost love… well, let’s just chalk this one up as another example of all things working together for the good.

(Originally posted by Josh Hurst at Reveal.)