Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Josh's Listening Journal, 11/30

I've spent the past week or so with Bettye Lavette's new album, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, and I can think of at least three good reasons why everyone here should check out this album immediately.

First... there's Joe Henry. Yup, our man is at it again. He's proven himself a capable producer of soul music veterans before-- ie, with the Solomon Burke disc froma few years back and with this year's I Believe to My Soul compilation-- and he proves it again here, giving these songs the same kind of "holy moment" feel of his own Tiny Voices disc or Dylan's Time Out of Mind, only grittier, funkier.

Second... there are the songs. Ten covers of songs by great female songwriters. Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," performed a capella. Lucinda Williams' "Joy," one of the fiercest rockers you'll hear all year. Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow," a nasty little number that rolls by on a cantankerous groove. Aimee Mann's "How am I Different," turned into an irresistable R&B shuffle. Fiona Apple's "Sleep to Dream," a weird, off-kilter album closer.

And third... there's LaVette herself. She's one of a kind-- defiant, aggressive, and full of attitude, but still dignified and eloquent. She's like a female version of Elvis Costello.

And speaking of which... Costello himself happens to love this disc. And so does Bonnie Raitt. So... what are you waiting for?

Critical Condition: John Mayer! Kate Bush!

Woa... I can't believe what I'm reading about Try!, the new live disc from the John Mayer Trio.

I've never been much of a John Mayer fan; his music generally strikes me as fairly bland, pedestrian, radio-ready rock, with a few two many echoes of Dave Matthews for my tastes. And then there's "Daughters," his award-winning song that pretty much proves that most Grammy voters wouldn't know a great song if they heard one. (And, apparently, they don't hear too many.) But this new album-- supposedly showcasing a bluesier side of Mayer's persoanlity-- is drawing raves. Just check out what Stephen Erlewine Thomas has to say about it.

Oh, and you might also want to check out Andy Whitman's take on...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

16 Horsepower revs up for new DVD

Here's a bit of consolation for those still mourning the loss of 16 Horsepower. A live DVD from the band is in the works, and details have just been posted on their official Web site.

Meanwhile... who's ready for a new Woven Hand disc?

Monday, November 28, 2005

My Flame is Blue

Hullo, all... and welcome back to another week of blogging. I hope you all had relaxing holiday breaks; I know I did, as is evident from the week-long blogging hiatus. But now it's back to business... starting with the latest news from Elvis Costello.

Apparently, everyone's favorite Imposter has got not one but two albums in the oven: his new studio album, recorded with Allen Toussaint and producer Joe Henry, and now a new live album, cut with a 52-piece jazz orchestra. Paste has the scoop on the latter album, My Flame Burns Blue.

Monday, November 21, 2005

New Innocence Mission album in 2006!

Yipee! Great news from the Innocence Mission's Web site:

Welcome. We are recording and hope to have new releases ready this coming year. We will post news soon about the re-release of Birds Of My Neighborhood.

New releases, plural? Oh, wow... last time a band posted a cryptic news blurb about upcoming albums, it ended up being a reference to a little double album called Ohio. Dare I even hope that this news will turn out to be so happy?

UPDATE: Thanks to hcmeyers for pointing out that, according to the label's Web site, Don Peris is working on his second solo album-- perhaps that explains the plural "releases" in the above statement.

Vertigo-- My review.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Still dizzy...

Last night I stood for two hours-- with a few thousand of my closest friends-- singing some of my all-time favorite songs at the top of my lungs.

And, I rode one of the most dizzying emotional rollercoasters of my life, cramming what felt like a year's worth of heartbreak, joy, and euphoria into just two and a half hours.

And, I basked in the presence of my four favorite musicians, being in the same room as them for the first time in my life.

And, I saw my greatest dream of the past five years finally come true.

Wow... writing that, it's almost hard to believe it's been five years. On the one hand, I can't remember a time when my musical sun didn't rise and set with U2; at the same time, though, my first experiences with the band stand out vividly in my mind. Frankly, I feel like I know Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen, and Adam Clayton better than I know many of my relatives... even though, until last night, I never got to see them in person.

Of course, I've never doubted them... I've always had complete faith in their showmanship, in their spiritual transendence, in their passion for their music. But, if I had had any doubts... well, I wouldn't any more.

But I'm clearly rambling. Truth is, I could go on and on and on, writing for hours about my history with U2 and what their music has meant to me. And I could probably write at least a page on every one of the songs they played last night. And there are probably no words to adequately capture the ways in which the show moved me... but I'm going to try to do so tomorrow when I sit down to write a review. Until then, here's the setlist:

Main Set: City of Blinding Lights, Vertigo, Elevation, I Will Follow, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, Beautiful Day, Happy Birthday, Original of the Species, Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own, Love and Peace or Else, Sunday Bloody Sunday - Rock the Casbah, Bullet the Blue Sky, Miss Sarajevo, Pride, Where the Streets Have No Name, One, MLK

Encore(s): Until the End of the World, Mysterious Ways, With or Without You, The First Time (acoustic), Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of, Bad

Beautiful day, indeed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Paste Polls are open!

Paste Magazine wants YOU... to vote in their annual survey. Click on over to their Web site, click on the link under "Contests," and let them know your picks for the best albums of 2005 (not to mention films, books, and video games).

And don't forget to vote for Andrew Bird!

Surprise, surprise! Derek Webb is being CONTROVERSIAL!

Derek Webb is at it again... talking about theology, politics, and art, and likely ruffling some feathers in the process. Check out his new interview with Infuze Magazine:

Well, you also have an upcoming album, Mockingbird, due in December around Christmas. I've heard you say this is a follow-up album of sorts to your solo debut, She Must And Shall Go Free.

Well, this record covers a lot of ground on social issues and things like that -- social and political issues. But it wasn't something I planned, just like I didn't plan for my first record to be all about the church. I was just reading and studying a lot about the church and what it was, what it's role in society was, and my role in that. I just ended up writing a whole bunch of songs about it. It wasn't this grand idea that I was gonna go and do this record about the church and then do these house shows. It all just happened. It was like dominoes falling over.

Looking back, it looks like a great plan, but I did not plan any of that. I'm just as surprised as anybody as to what's going to come out next.

So this record is kind of the same way. It's just what I have been interested in and learning about and trying to find my role in. There's just a lot of things for us to think about in the climate of our world right now. The command to love our neighbors and to love our enemies is getting more and more difficult. It's getting to be a harder and harder teaching every day in the West and it's something that we have to apply to a lot of complex situations. It's like when we hear about the prisoners that are in our care or just any number of things, it becomes more and more difficult to figure out how to love our enemies. But when Jesus said this command, he said it in the context of the Good Samaritan, which basically makes our neighbors to be the same as our enemies.

So this makes things really complicated. And so I just started writing a whole bunch of songs about these issues.

How is this new direction going over?

I had a lot of friends and people who were on the message boards, for example, who started to hear some of the new songs and get really concerned. Because anytime you start talking about the poor, evangelicals will call you a liberal, which doesn't make any sense, of course, but that's the way it is. So I start to sing some of these new songs and the people in the on-line community started to get concerned that I was no longer interested in preaching the gospel, that I was all into this social justice gospel.

But you can't separate the two, right?

Well, that's right. But I understand the concern because we did go through the whole social gospel movement not that many years ago in the church. There we had some people go to an extreme in their care for the poor -- meeting only their physical needs with no care for their souls, which is obviously not what I am advocating.

So they were concerned. They were worried that maybe they were losing me to some movement or some kind of fashionable dissent. But I wanted to address this with the press, because they won't be the first people asking that. So it's important for me to state that I think this record is just as much about the gospel as my first record. My first record has a lot more Christian language on it. And because it's about what I would call one side of the gospel coin--which is the proclamation of the one who has come, who has made a way, who has kept the law on our behalf -- that's one half of the gospel. But the other half of that coin is the proclamation of His kingdom coming. It's Jesus and His kingdom coming that we are to take to people.

So I did spend one record talking about that first half. I did still make that record. I did still write those songs and continue to sing those songs. It's not that I am starting from scratch and developing this whole other identity. I just do this record in the context of everything else I've ever done. This is just another chapter in a long story for me. So I personally don't feel the obligation to have to write the entire gospel story into every record I ever do. I think I can specialize on some records.

You can listen to my first record and say, "Well, this record is just all about the church. What about loving others? Does this mean you don't believe any of that?" Well, no. That record was about something specific. And this record is about social issues. It's not that I don't care about the other songs, the other topics about the church anymore.


So how would you describe what you're doing now? Are you a musician making good music? Is there something more behind that?

I would definitely say that this whole thing is not ministry for me. I am not a minister. I am a singer/songwriter. My job is to write and play songs. That's part of what ends up being confusing for people who might judge quickly and harshly on what I'm doing or whatever. They say, "How dare he turn his back on preaching the gospel?"

Just like any Christian in the arts, I don't have any obligation to use my work for evangelism. It's a very common misconception. If you are gifted in the arts...For example, if you are a guitar player, your only option for work is not to go join a praise band. There are a lot of things you can do. But unfortunately, we have the whole gifted in the arts and full-time vocational thing all wrapped up into one now.

It's not that different than someone who is gifted in caregiving and is a doctor and opening up a practice to give excellent health care. If there are moments of ministry that come in, you look for them and wait for them, then you take advantage of them. But your work is to give excellent health care. To do your work with excellence is glorifying to God. However, a doctor could decide to go into full-time vocational ministry and open a free clinic.

There are musicians who do that. I am just not one of them. Of course, there are moments of ministry that happen, but what I am here to do is play music and to play the best that I can.

That affords me the liberty to write about anything I want. Anything that Jesus is Lord of is something I can write a song about. And Jesus is Lord of all things. This means I can write about anything.

My problem is that what is classified as Christian music...Christians are only writing songs and painting pictures and making art about the most spiritual top two percent of stuff -- the afterlife, the most spiritual of current living. The problem is that there is that whole other 98% of creation and life to discuss -- that does involve politics. It does involve sexuality. Scripture does give us a framework to speak to each of these things. We just are not for whatever reason.

This is a tremendous disservice to the church. I think that one of the primary ways to engage in each other's worldviews, the way to look at movements, is to look at the art from that worldview or movement. It has always been that way. Look at any movement throughout history and the art will tell you a lot about the movement itself. It's the biggest door you can come in through.

And there's much more where that came from!

For what its worth, I talked with Derek's publicist earlier this week, and I should have a copy of his new album any day now. Can't wait!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Critical Condition: Wilco! Springsteen! Phoenix and Witherspoon!

Great news for people who love Wilco! A live album is born today... and it's a two-discer!

Pitchfork raves about Kicking Telvision:

Though the band loosens up the new songs, the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot numbers remain consistent with previous live renditions-- that is, still awesome. Tweedy's clenched voice is consumes by noise on "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart", xylophones ever-tinkling. "Let's get this party started...with some midtempo rock," he jokes, then fulfills his pledge with "Jesus, Etc.", slide guitar replacing violins on the chorus and the verses sprinkled with reggae-tinged synths. He tries humor again leading into "I Am the Man Who Loves You", announcing, "This is my favorite part of the show: I love you!" before unleashing an erection of guitar noise and a porno-funk intro to an uptempo performance with bright Sgt. Pepper's horns. Faithful renditions of "Radio Cure", "Ashes of American Flags", "Poor Places", and poppy "Heavy Metal Drummer" round out the second disc.

Meanwhile, Thom Jurek is stoked about the new 30th Anniversary package of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run:

Presented in this way, Born to Run is enough to make one accept that rock & roll is a force to be reckoned with rather than something to market cars, beer, and lingerie; it contains the mythic power of the ages, and dare it be said the proof that God himself can speak through a sleazy looking, beat, flesh and blood batch of street urchins using the ordinary as a means of speaking of the power, vulnerability, romance, and redemption of everyday life as something to be celebrated , struggled through, and cherished.

Finally, Stephen Thomas Erlewine weighs in on the soundtrack to the new Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line:

So, Walk the Line winds up being a curious yet enjoyable listen. By no means does this replace the Cash or Carter originals, but it's a good tribute to both musicians, while providing some fascinating insight to the art and craft of Phoenix and Witherspoon as actors.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Musical Graffiti, 11/13-- Costello, Henry, Toussaint collaborate.

Elvis Costello

Joe Henry.

And pianist Allen Toussaint.

I smell a great collaboration! has the details.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Josh's Listening Journal, 11/10

I'm still trying to make up my mind about Front Parlour Ballads, the latest release from Richard Thompson.

An all-acoustic album, Ballads is a pleasant change of pace from Thompson's louder, rowdier rock albums-- like 1999's excellent Mock Tudor. It's a more gentle, laid-back affair, and a perfect showcase for Thompson's always-impressive guitar work.

In fact, that's both the album's greatest strength and its ultimate downfall. On the one hand, there's some truly remarkable musicianship on display here, and the acoustic setting gives Thompson more room to show off his impressive range, both as a guitarist and as a vocalist. And his lyrics are, as usual, first rate; the spare arrangements only serve to further highlight his graceful wit.

And yet, I can't help but feeling like maybe the musicianship here is too good. Many of these songs feel so calculated and choreographed that they smack of dullness-- something that's rarely been a problem for Thompson in the past. There's little in the way of spontaneity or improvisation, and, since Thompson plays just about everything himself, there's nothing in the way of chemistry between musicians. Furthermore, there are a few tracks here-- particularly the opener, "Let it Blow"-- that just beg for full-band rock arrangements. One wonders if some of this material would have been better if saved for Thompson's next electric album.

There are more then enough memorable tracks here to make Ballads well worth hearing. Personally, though, I keep wanting to go back to Mock Tudor-- one of the finest rock albums released by a solo artist in the 1990s, and the definite highpoint of latter-day Richard Thompson.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Josh's Listening Journal, 11/9

It's one of the most overused phrases in all of music criticism: Her voice is so beautiful, I'd pay to hear her read the phonebook!

I keep thinking about this line as I listen to Aerial, the new album from Kate Bush. Because while Bush may not sing the phonebook, she does sing... the digits of pi. And she tells stories about a woman watching her clothes swirl around in the washing machine. And she makes heroes not of warriors or kings, but of architects, painters, and mathmeticians.

And I haven't heard a more sensual, seductive, or downright sexy album all year.

That's Kate Bush's gift. She sings about the most mundane things, and yet she charges these seemingly unimportant, everyday moments with spirituality and romance. Thus, Aerial-- a two-disc collection, and her first recording in twelve years-- is a profoundly beautiful, charmingly idiosyncratic celebration of humanity and lives well lived.

Musically, it's as weird as anything she's ever done... and probably as good. It's every bit as ethereal as Hounds of Love, but with much crisper production. There are elements of jazz, folk, and even a dash of rock, as well as a few spellbinding piano ballads. And, with some tracks clocking in at over eight minutes long, there are some impressively complex song structures that would make Sufjan Stevens proud.

I've also been listening to another new album from a veteran artist... Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, by Paul McCartney. Sir Paul's continues his latter-day career rebirth with what is one of his most critically celebrated solo albums in decades, thanks in large part to Nigel Godrich-- the same producer who has worked with Radiohead and Beck.

Godrich brings out the very best in McCartney. This is, simply put, the most beautiful-sounding collection Sir Paul has released; the sound is crisp, clean, and pristine, and the songs hold together remarkabley well as a collection. In fact, this may be the first McCartney solo album to ever come entirely devoid of filler.

Lyrically, McCartney is just as sentimental as ever, indulging in his love for love songs to usually fine results. On some songs, though, his optimism turns into mere platitudes; on "Too Much Rain," for example, he basically tells his listener to simply not allow himself to feel any more sorrow or despair... easier said than done! In fact, every time McCartney seems to be reaching for profundity, he ends up sounding empty and trite. Thus, the album doesn't really give us much to think about, making it less memorable than it would have been had his words met the high standard of his music. Still, there are plenty of simple charms here-- "English Tea" is a delight-- and the production alone makes it well worth a listen.

Musical Graffiti, 11/9-- Neil Diamond! Arcade Fire!

Good news for people who love downloading!

The first one's a freebie. Anyone curious about the new, critically acclaimed Neil Diamond record, 12 Songs, can stream the whole album from Neil's MySpace site, free of charge.

And, starting next week, Arcade Fire fans can download an exclusive live cut of "Wake Up"-- featuring guest vocalist David Bowie-- from iTunes. (Sorry... you have to pay for this one.) But it's only going to last for one week, so get it while you can! NME has details.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Critical Condition: Neil Diamond; Kate Bush

Looks like tomorrow's a big day for big comeback albums.

Critics are already praising the new album from... (and I never thought I'd be saying this)...

...Neil Diamond. Stephen Thomas Erlewine raves about 12 Songs, Diamond's collaboration with producer Rick Rubin:

And that's why 12 Songs is, in a way, even more welcome than American Recordings. Where Cash's comeback confirmed what everybody already knew about him, this presents a side of Neil Diamond that's never been heard on record and, in the process, it offers a new way of looking at the rest of his catalog -- which is a pretty remarkable achievement, but the best thing about 12 Songs is that it's simply one of the most entertaining, satisfying albums Diamond has ever released.

And we mustn't forget the new Kate Bush album, Aerial!

Thom Jurek turns in a lengthy review at AMG:

Nothing much happens on Aerial except the passing of a day, as noted by the one who engages it in the process of being witnessed, yet it reveals much about the interior and natural worlds and expresses spiritual gratitude for everyday life. Musically, this is what listeners have come to expect from Bush at her best -- a finely constructed set of songs that engage without regard for anything else happening in the world of pop music. There's no pushing of the envelope because there doesn't need to be. Aerial is rooted in Kate Bush's oeuvre, with grace, flair, elegance, and an obsessive, stubborn attention to detail. What gets created for the listener is an ordinary world, full of magic; it lies inside one's dwelling in overlooked and inhabited spaces, and outside, from the backyard and out through the gate into wonder.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Vote for Linford and Karin!

Now here's something I never thought I'd hear myself saying...

Over the Rhine is being considered for... a Grammy nomination?!?

So says their most recent newsletter:

Over the Rhine's latest cd, Drunkard's Prayer, is on the list for potential Grammy nomination in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category!

If you believe, as many do, that Over the Rhine's music and songwriting are worthy of recognition, please take a few minutes to forward this note to your musical colleagues and friends.

We greatly appreciate your support, your vote and your help in spreading the word!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Musical Graffiti, 11/3-- Kate Bush! More Kate Bush! Sheryl Crow! U2!

Today in music news:

1. NME has gone Kate Bush crazy! Not only do they have an exclusive interview with her, but they've also got her upcoming double album-- Aerial-- which you can stream for free!

2. I still haven't heard Sheryl Crow's new album, Wildflower, but Jeffrey Overstreet has. I don't always agree with Jeffrey, but I do the vast majority of the time... so, I, um, may not make much of an effort to hear this album now...

3. Oh, and U2 fans... looks like Bono and the boys have got even more surprises in store for the remander of their tour. Check out what songs thay've been rehearsing recently... unless you want to avoid any kind of tour spoilers.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Fifteen Golden Greats

You film buffs have probably seen this already: The Internet Movie Database, celebrating their 15th Anniversary, has allowed each of its staff members to post a list of their fifteen favorite films from 1990-2005. The results are... kinda sad. But it is a good springboard for conversation. And, since this is a music-related blog, I thought it's be fun to take the same ground rules and apply it to great music.

So, what are your fifteen favorite albums from 1990 to the present? Which are the most artful? The most entertining? The most meaningful to you on a personal level? Here's my list of the fifteen albums-- released from 1990 to 2005-- that delight me, move me, transport me, and give me the most to think about. They excite my imagination and nourish my spirit, leading me to laughter, empathy, and prayer. All fifteen are albums that I would defend as being artful, inventive, and poetic, but, more than anything, they're the ones that I keep coming back to over and over again.

My list:

1. Joe Henry, Tiny Voices (2003)
2. Over the Rhine, Good Dog Bad Dog (1996)
3. U2, Achtung Baby (1991)
4. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (2001)
5. Sam Phillips, A Boot and a Shoe (2004)
6. Radiohead, Kid A (2000)
7. Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005)
8. REM, Reveal (2001)
9. Radiohead, OK Computer (1997)
10. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues/ The Lyre of Orpheus (2004)
11. U2, Pop (1997)
12. Over the Rhine, Ohio (2003)
13. REM, New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
14. The Innocence Mission, Birds of My Neighborhood (1996)
15. Ron Sexsmith, Retriever (2004)

So what would you pick for such a list? Where did I do wrong?