Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Critical Condition: Cockburn! Mehldau! Young! Serenity!

Time to round up this week's new releases. We'll start with a pair of instrumental releases from a couple of veteran artists. Bruce Cockburn turned sixty years old this year but he shows no sign of slowing down; today marks the release of Speechless, his first ever collection of instrumental guitar pieces. If Thom Jurek is right-- and he often is-- this record promises to be much more compelling than the other recent instrumental release by a renowned Canadian singer/songwriter:

The most remarkable thing about Speechless, is though it lies firmly in its own subcategory in Cockburn's catalogue, it remains, despite the improvisation and textures, a recording of songs. Their composer's need to establish the fact even in abstraction and extrapolation is commendable. Speechless is not only accessible, it's downright beautiful, poetic and seductive.

Today's also the release day for Day is Done, the latest instrumental jazz recording from the great pianist Brad Mehldau. If you're not a Mehldau fan then give a listen to his take on Radiohead's "Paranoid Android"; it's all it'll take to convince you of this man's talents. His new record boasts yet another Radiohead cover-- "Knives Out"-- and another rave review from Thom Jurek:

This is Mehldau's most energetic and rigorous recording to date. These ten cuts are comprised mainly of covers, though aside from "Alfie," there isn't anything here approaching a standard. There are tunes here by the Beatles ("She's Leaving Home" and a glorious solo version "Martha My Dear" with a Scarlatti-esque study in counterpoint to usher it in), Paul Simon (a jaunty read of "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover"), Nick Drake (the title cut), and even Radiohead (in the crackling energy of "Knives Out"). There are two fine originals as well: there's the shimmering "Artis," with its striated right hand work, and the Latin tinged "Turtle Town," a somewhat breezy ballad that is nonetheless knotty and off kilter enough in its melody and in Mehldau's solo to become complex and challenging.

Things don't sound quite so rosey for Neil Young fans. Stephen Thomas Erlewine reviews Prairie Wind:

For despite all of its strengths, neither the recording nor the songs are as memorable or as fully realized as his late-'80s/early-'90s comeback records -- Freedom, Ragged Glory, and Harvest Moon -- let alone his classic '70s work. Nevertheless, it's the closest Young has come to making a record that could hold its own with those albums in well over a decade, which means it's worthwhile even if it's never quite as great as it seems like it could have been.

Finally, as a big fan of Firefly-- the greatest sci-fi adventure series to ever hit TV-- I'm slightly disappointed by this review of the Serenity soundtrack, from the big-screen adaptation that opens this week:

While composer David Newman -- he has a famous composer brother named Thomas (Shawshank Redemption, Six Feet Under) and even more famous cousin named Randy -- retains little of Greg Edmonson and Whedon's original music on the series' big-screen adaptation, Serenity is still occasionally kissed by a flurry of guitar and banjo, percussion, and pan-Asian flute motifs. Newman has taken some of the quirkiness out -- to many a fan's dismay -- and replaced it with chilly and bombastic action cues that scream mediocrity, but for the most part no great injustice has been done.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Iron and Wine/Calexico-- The review is up!

I've just posted a review of the new Iron and Wine/Calexico collaboration-- the In the Reins EP-- at Reveal, written by guest critic Matt Vanderzalm. And for the record, I agree with his assessment almost completely-- it's a fine, fine record, though tragically brief and not quite as strong as Woman King.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sam Phillips update, 9/25

Woa... things seem to be picking up in a hurry for Sam Phillips and her fans. Just about a week after she announced that she was back in the studio, another blog entry has popped up at her Web site, chronicling the first couple days of recording. Nothing as juicey as song titles, I'm afraid, but man, if these new songs are half as mysterious and poetic as her blog entries, we're in for one heck of a compelling album!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Critical Condition: Patty Loveless

I'm dying for my chance to hear the new Patty Loveless album, Dreaming My Dreams.

Not that I've ever been a big Loveless fan. But this album boasts songs written by everyone from Steve Earle to Richard Thompson to the great Joe Henry. And just check out Thom Jurek's rave review at All Music Guide:

This is an adventurous outing for the likes of Music City. But Loveless has a track record that demands she get to take any chance she wishes. But the amazing thing still is her voice; it never strays from the heart and soul of country music's grand tradition. The ballads here (such as "Nobody Here by That Name" or "When Being Who You Are Is Not Enough," by Jim Lauderdale and Leslie Sacher) are otherworldly; the rockers, such as Delbert McClinton's "Some Kind of Crazy" and Thompson's tune, strut, swagger, and dig deep into the basic emotions of love and loss. Ultimately, the sheer range of sounds, emotions, and the integrity of Loveless' voice make Dreaming My Dreams a candidate for country album of the year.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The New Pornographers... the review is up!

Just a quick note to say that my review of the latest New Pornographers disc, Twin Cinema, is up at Reveal.

Vertigo Update, 9/18

This year's U2 tour has been full of surprises. Who ever thought we'd hear them play "Running to Stand Still," "Gloria," "The Ocean," and "In God's Country" again? After the relatively static setlists of the Elevation tour, Vertigo 2005 has been anything but predictable; I can't wait to see what surprises the band has in store when I see them in November.

For now, I've just read their most recent setlist-- from last night's concert in Vancouver-- and all I have to say is this: THEY PLAYED "DISCOTHEQUE!"

Friday, September 16, 2005

Cokemachineglow takes on Jars of Clay!

Cokemachineglow.com-- considered by many to be Pitchfork Media's kid brother-- is celebrating their 3-year-anniversary by having each of their staff writers review the first CD that he or she ever purchased. Among them: Jars of Clay's Much Afraid!

And surprise, surprise... they actually like it!

Curiously, the reviewer makes the rather sweeping statement that Much Afraid is the best album to ever come out of contemporarey Christian music. That doesn't really mean anything-- it's like saying that being poisoned is the best way to be murdered-- but it does beg the question: What's your favorite album to ever emerge from CCM Land?

My vote: She Must and Shall Go Free, by Derek Webb. And I'll be saying much more about his music very soon, when a special Webb-related feature is posted at Reveal early next week!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Kicking Television: Wilco makes it a double!

Good news for people who love Wilco: Billboard announces that Jeff Tweedy and the gang will be releasing their first-ever live album, Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, on November 1. And that's not all... they're making it a two-discer!

Here's the full story, and here's the track listing:

Disc one:
"Company in My Back"
"The Late Greats"
"Hell Is Chrome"
"Handshake Drugs"
"I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"
"Shot in the Arm"
"At Least That's What You Said"
"Wishful Thinking"
"Jesus, Etc."
"I'm the Man Who Loves You"
"Kicking Television"

Disc two:
"Via Chicago"
"Muzzle of Bees"
"One by One"
"Airline to Heaven"
"Radio Cure"
"Ashes of American Flags"
"Heavy Metal Drummer"
"Poor Places"
"Spiders (Kidsmoke)"

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Josh's Listening Journal, 9/13

This week I've been reveling in new albums from three first-class singer/songwriters.

Destination Unknown is the best of the three. A collaboration between world-class musician Ron Sexsmith and his frequent cellist/drummer, Don Kerr, the album stands out as a humble, sincere labor of love in a catalog that's full of them. Sounding very much like an acoustic version of Retriever (still my favorite Sexsmith disc), Destination Unknown gives one the impression that Sexsmith and Kerr just sat down on a back porch and started noodling around on their guitars and harmonizing. The songwriting is sweet and sincere, the melodies are immediately unforgettable, the production is flawless, and the harmoines are rich and moving. In other words, it's every bit a Ron Sexsmith album.

Meanwhile, Denison Witmer enlists the help of Sufjan Stevens and The Innocence Mission on his new project, Are You a Dreamer? It's easy to tell; the album sounds very much like a cross between Befriended and Seven Swans. Don Peris produces the set, and he wisely throws in enouth styistic variation and unexpected stylistic flourishes to make this project unique to Witmer. These are quiet, gentle, uncommonly beautiful folk songs with lyrics about faith, hope, and dreaming. Witmer delivers these songs with so much warmth you can't help but be won over.

Finally, if every song on Tracy Bonham's Blink the Brightest was as strong the opening three cuts, it'd be a probable candidate for Album of the Year. Unfortunately, there's not quite enough sonic and lyrical variation to keep the whole album as interesting, but it's still a highly impressive pop album. Bonham's got a magnetic, compelling voice, not to mention a flare for writing massive, unrelenting pop hooks. The production is slick, but never inappropriately so, and though her lyrics explore very familiar territory, they're clever and idiosyncratic enough to keep things fresh and interesting. Oh, and "Something Beautiful" is a pop song to rival the very best work from the New Pornographers.

So there you have it; three highly worthwhile albums from three classy singer/songwriters. Check back later this week for some more mini-reviews.

Critical Condition: Sigur Ros

I am spellbound listening to the new album from Sigur Ros, Takk. It's just plain beautiful, simple as that. But don't take my word for it; Andy Whitman is praising the album as "cherubim garage rock" over at his blog:

The music is so gloriously sweeping and panoramic and downright spiritually uplifting that there were times when I had difficulty not raising my hands from the steering wheel, not a recommended practice when driving a minivan. I love the strings. I love the brass band. And I love the vision of a band that simply wants to make transparently beautiful music. They succeeded.

Whitman isn't alone; check out all these rave reviews!

Monday, September 12, 2005

Sam Phillips update!

Wooooooooo hooooooooo! Here's the best news I've heard in a long time: Sam Phillips, my favorite singer/songwriter in the world ( A Boot and a Shoe was my favorite record of 2004), has begun work on her newest album! She has this to say at her official Web site:


Today I am starting another record. The working title is "Will you trade me this for a tank of gas?" The question glaring at me like the desert sun first thing in the morning is why make a record? Most things I hear are uninspired, or career motivated at best. I don't know why. I have always been interested in what shakes, breaks, takes you off the road, catches you off guard, makes you dream with your eyes open. There are songs and paintings and books that have eclipsed everything while throwing light on a world that is real only when, as I think William Blake said, we see through and not with the eyes. There are clues to the sublime. Signs. Signals. I don't understand them, but I can't live without them. I don't think any of us are meant to. When I started writing songs I tried to push all of that away so that I could change the world, but it wouldn't be pushed. What Bob Dylan started in pop music years ago was misunderstood and turned to stone by so many writers who admired him. You just can't go very far with stone, it is too heavy. That's okay. I found out within a few painful years of trying to change the world with my songs, that I needed to change. The deep, true changes weren't going to happen unless I stepped back, fell down, got back up, shook off the humiliation of failed control and took in the signs, clues and wonders that are underneath and above all of this feeble culture.

I have been collecting things for this record for a while. Last year I found the group of musicians I wanted to play onstage with. I fell in love with them when we played and when I saw them first thing in way too early morning as we dragged ourselves to the next city, or when we all boarded the bus after a show to gloat or lick our wounds. I saw them being frisked in the airport, all dressed up at Carnegie Hall, out on the town after hours, in beautiful hotels with marble baths , in seedy motels with plastic sinks, crossing the boarder in the middle of the night, staring at the local staring contest while waiting to do a sound check at the Sons of Herman Hall in Texas, prying the secret recipe of a grilled lettuce salad out of a chef in a mountain town, weary after long bus rides, crying with laughter. We were taken out to crazy good dinners, tried to find eatable food at truck stops and airports, ate road side BBQ with exquisite champagne someone had given to us and sampled coffee joints all over the country. This week I have convinced them all to record with me.

More later."

Don't worry too much about Buddy Miller...

...because he's just won a pair of Americana Music Awards, one for Album of the Year (last year's fantastic Universal United House of Prayer) and one for song of the year. The latter, won for "Worry Too Much," is shared with the song's writer, the late Mark Heard. The Tennesseean has the full rundown of the winners.

Also, hear what Buddy and wife Julie have to say about Hurricane Katrina and related relief efforts in this inerview with the Daily Times.

New this week: Sigur Ros! Charlie Sexton! Dar Williams! Many more!

Lots of noteworthy new albums releasing tomorrow, and leading the pack is Sigur Ros' new disc, Takk. Rave reviews for the eerie Icelandic art-rock band are pouring in from all corners, including this glowing report from Stephen Thomas Erlewine. But don't take his word for it; hear the album for yourself-- for free!-- at MySpace. I've been listening all day, utterly spellbound, and I can say with certainty that I'll be first in line to buy the thing when it hits store shelves tomorrow.

Also releasing this week:

  • Cruel and Gentle Things, the new disc from Bob Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton.
  • If Songs Could Be Held, from Rosie Thomas.
  • My Better Self, by Dar Williams... which includes a duet with Ani DiFranco on Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." Now that I have to hear.
  • Dreaming My Dreams, by Patty Loveless... which includes songs written by Joe Henry, Richard Thompson, and Steve Earle!
  • And let's not forget the new Iron and Wine/Calexico EP, In the Reins
So... who's ready to join me in going broke?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

One step closer to concert DVDs!

Great news from U2tours.com. Apparently, those of us who still can't get enough of U2's Elevation and Slane Castle concert DVDs will once again have a cance to see the band on the small screen this November, with what appears to be the release od a brand new concert DVD. Man oh man... just one week before I get to see the band play live. What a great way to whet my appetite!

So, the question of the day: What's your favorite U2 concert DVD?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Artists campaign for hurricane relief

Well, it was only a matter of time before the always socially-aware U2 pitched in to help with hurrican relief efforts.

The Irish superband-- along with Paul Simon, Kanye West, the Dixie Chicks, Neil Young, and a number of other musicians-- are set to play for the "Shelter for the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast" telethon, set to air on all six major TV networks tomorrow at 8:00 EST.

Billboard has the full story.

No, But She Feels Yes Nearby: My Interview with The Ragbirds

Months after its release, The Ragbirds' debut album, Yes Nearby, continues to excite and enchant me with its musical eclecticism, its intense poetic focus, and the magnetic personality of lead singer Erin Zindle. Recently I had a chance to talk to Zindle about her band and their debut album. The full interview is up now at Reveal.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Even MORE Sufjan Stevens!

Dadgum it, that Sufjan Stevens is everywhere this year! Not only has he releases the year's most critically acclaimed album, Illinois, but he's also recorded special songs for NPR and a Beatles tribute CD. Now you can add yet another project to his list... Dream Brother: The Songs of Tim and Jeff Buckley.

Here's the tracklisting:

  1. The Magic Numbers - Sing A Song For You
  2. Micah P. Hinson - Yard Of Blonde Girls
  3. Sufjan Stevens - She Is
  4. King Creosote - Grace
  5. The Earlies - I Must Have Been Blind
  6. Bitmap - Dream Brother
  7. Engineers - Song To The Siren
  8. Adem - Mojo Pin
  9. Tunng - No Man Can Find The War
  10. Stephen Fretwell - Morning Theft
  11. Kathryn Williams - Buzzin’ Fly
  12. Matthew Herbert & Dani Siciliano - Everybody Here Wants You
  13. Clayhill - The River

Monday, September 05, 2005

Destination: New Ron Sexsmith!

Just a reminder that tomorrow's the release date for Ron Sexsmith's latest project, Destination Unknown. AMG has a full review of Sexsmith's new collaboration with Don Kerr, and it sounds like the two of them have concocted a real gem:

Sexsmith has rarely sounded more comfortable or compelling as a vocalist; these thirteen songs are beautifully cast in his own special mold, and he brings them to rich life on these recordings, with Kerr's harmonies adding an invaluable assist. Destination Unknown is one of Ron Sexsmith's most straightforward and unadorned albums to date, and it also happens to be one of his best.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Critical Condition: David Martin on Nickel Creek

Here's a treat for all you Nickel Creek fans. David Martin-- a friend of mine and a long-time Nickel Creek listener-- has weighed in on their new album, Why Should the Fire Die?

For what it's worth, I posted my own initial impressions of this album a while back, and I think I'd stick with my first response to the album; that is, I think the music is wonderfully melodic, the arrangements impressively progressive, the vocal harmonies utterly beautiful, and the musicianship quite solid. Alas, the songwriting still seems stuck in high school diary mode; while I appreciate the band's willingness to approach deeper, darker subject matter, their lyrics just aren't very artful.

But reading Martin's review makes me wonder if maybe I should give this disc one more chance. What say you folks? Anyone want to challenge my criticism of Nickel Creek's lyrics?