Friday, January 27, 2006

Kanye West on Jesus, Grammy, and porn.

You know, I enjoyed Kanye West's last album. He's a talented guy, and he's done a lot to make hip-hop a more creatively vibrant genre.

But man... whenever I hear the guy speak, my respect for him just drops like a brick.

Here's a great example of what I'm talking about.

Musical Graffiti, 1/27-- Beth Orton! Elvis Costello!

Just a couple of quick links, highlighting some exciting upcoming releases:

1. Rolling Stone has the scoop on Beth Orton's new disc, The Comfort of Strangers-- and it sounds fabulously intimate.

For the pared-down record, Orton stripped away the electronic elements and lush orchestrations that were staples of her previous albums. "I wanted to make the music that I liked to listen to, and I wasn't listening to electronic music," she explains. "For me, the thread that runs through everything I love is soul, is folk . . . In the end, it came to me like, 'You know what I want to make? A folk-gospel-soul record with a country tear dripping down its cheek.' But then at the same time, I wanted to do that as sparsely and minimally as possible."

2. The Elvis Costello Home Page has posted the tracklisting for Costello's new live album, My Flame Burns Blue, releasing Feb. 28.
  1. Hora Decubitus
  2. Favourite Hour
  3. That's How You Got Killed Before
  4. Upon A Veil Of Midnight Blue
  5. Clubland
  6. Almost Blue
  7. Dust (only on Japanese release)
  8. Speak Darkly My Angel
  9. Almost Ideal Eyes
  10. Can You Be True?
  11. Put Away Forbidden Playthings
  12. Episode Of Blonde
  13. My Flame Burns Blue (Blood Count)
  14. Watching The Detectives
* It's worth noting that All Music Guide lists a fifteenth track-- "God Give Me Strength." Boy do I hope they're right about that one!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Josh's Listening Journal, 1/23

I'm starting to get some 2006 releases come across my desk, so I figure it's long past time for me to finish up with 2005's crop of reviews. I had a busy year and didn't get to cover nearly all of the albums that I wanted to, but I'm going to take some time this week to highlight some of my personal favorites. Later this week I hope to have a brief review of Wilco's latest set; after that, it's on to 2006 stuff, with reviews of an exciting new Nina Simone collection and new recordings from Rosanne Cash and Jenny Lewis.

And for today... here are some brief takes on three of my very favorite recordings from 2005. (For future reference, these are also available in the Reveal music archives.) Enjoy!

***

Schmaltz is easy. Sentimentality is a breeze. But joy—real, genuine, lived-in Christian joy? Now that’s tough to pull off in a pop song. Many have tried it, but for every “Beautiful Day” it seems like there are a dozen rewrites of “Everybody Hurts.”

Erin McKeown, like Ron Sexsmith and The Innocence Mission, learns how to do joy. But it took her a few albums to learn the ropes—her last album, Grand, strove for sincerity and hopefulness but ended up sounding irritatingly cheerful and saccharine. Even the music seemed like it was trying too hard—McKeown tried on just about every style imaginable, jumping from guitar pop to Tin Pan Alley without ever hinting at any kind of unifying vision or focus.

But now, on her latest recording, McKeown has come into her own, displaying remarkable powers both as a singer and as a songwriter. We Will Become Like Birds is an astonishing step forward, a pop album of profound poetic focus and depth. Gone are the scattershot stylistic flirtations and cheesy attempts at perkiness that characterized Grand; in their place is a work of art that deserves to be put on the shelf right beside Sam Phillips and Aimee Mann.

Rather than sampling a dozen different genres, McKeown sticks to just one here—breezy, dreamy guitar pop, with flourishes of electric piano and wisps of electronica dancing around the edges. Fuzzy grunge guitars create an impossibly gentle soundscape on the opener, “Aspera.” Cascading synthesizers build into a beautiful climax in “Life on the Moon.” The jazzy “Float” does just what its name says, drifting by with laid-back strumming and whispers of “Hallelujah.” “Bells and Bombs” is a punchy, fists-in-the-air rock number, while “The Golden Dream” is a hazy electronica trance.

McKeown’s lyrics here aren’t just happy—in fact, there’s a surprising amount of heartbreak here—but they’re sincerely joyful. Like The Innocence Mission’s masterful Birds of My Neighborhood, McKeown’s Birds represents hope in the midst of despair, faith born out of trying times. “Aspera” is a survivor’s anthem, celebrating the ways in which hardships help us to grow. “Air” is a prayer for bravery and a lamentation over untaken chances, and the terrific closer, “You Were Right About Everything,” pays homage to the faithful and the courageous. In “Life on the Moon,” science is seen as limited in its usefulness—faith in the unseen is what truly inspires. Has McKeown been drinking some of the same stuff as Andrew Bird?

It all adds up to a perfect summer soundtrack, and a record that’s completely delightful from start to finish. Here McKeown sings with confidence and compassion, and writes full-bodied songs that open themselves up with repeated listens. Now that she’s found her footing, don’t be surprised if she quickly establishes herself as one of our most gifted singer/songwriters.

***

Fiona Apple’s last boyfriend was a jackass, and she wants you to know it. On her third album, Extraordinary Machine, she plays the dual roles of poet and documentary film maker, recounting a failed relationship with an eye for detail and an ear for snappy metaphors. She’s mad as hornets and she ain’t gonna take it. And, incidentally, she’s made her finest, sharpest album yet, a blistering and heartbreaking tour of betrayal and loss that finds Apple’s musical and lyrical gifts more refined and potent than ever before.

The album almost didn’t happen. Like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Machine seemed destined to be one of those albums that was less interesting than its back story; stuck for years behind record label red tape, the original, Jon Brion-produced version was ultimately scrapped and later revamped, this time with hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo. Where Brion’s work was busy and overdone—and, to be fair, never finished— Elizondo’s is simpler, tighter, more streamlined, often with a noticeable hip-hop edge. For her part, Apple may have the smoky voice of a jazz chanteuse, but don’t be fooled. She’s no Norah Jones—Apple sings with a cadence, a rhythm and flow that most rap artists would kill for, making each syllable pack a mean punch.

Only two of Brion’s tracks remain on the finished product, the title cut and the closing number, “Waltz (Better than Fine).” These songs are richly orchestrated, with horns, strings, marimbas, and a healthy dose of the usual Brion quirkiness. The rest of the album is leaner and more efficient, but no less stylish or addictive. Apple’s piano playing is forceful and percussive, and Elizondo jacks up the bass in many tracks to give them a propulsive momentum. Songs like “Tymps” benefit from genuine hip-hop beats, while “Parting Gift” and “Red Red Red” are more intimate and sparse. Best of all is “Not About Love,” a monstrous mutant-jazz number that takes as many twists and turns as an Andrew Bird song.

Lyrically, Machine runs the gamut of emotions associated with bad breakups, taking us from denial (the title cut) to the thirst for revenge (“Get Him Back”) to doubt (“Tymps”) to sorrow (“Red Red Red”) to a final note of acceptance and hope (“Waltz”). Many will no doubt find this final cut to be a meaningful conclusion; personally, I don’t take much solace in it. Like REM’s “Everybody Hurts,” Apple’s song is clearly reaching for something meaningful, but, without Christ, there’s nothing in the way of real grace. But she’s obviously searching, fumbling to find something beautiful amidst the chaos—and that in itself can be inspiring—and, if the kaleidoscopic sounds and bright pop colors are any indication, this extraordinary Machine is the soundtrack of a survivor.

***

On most of his songs, Craig Finn sounds completely wasted. He’s a mad drunk, who half-sings and half-speaks in long, disjointed rambles. Sometimes he’s going off about drug culture, hoodrats and skaters and dealers; sometimes he’s riffing on religion, mumbling about resurrection and the book of Exodus and the glory of Jesus Christ; usually, he’s talking about both, joining the profane and the sacred into a language entirely his own. He’s a barstool preacher who loves the sound of his own voice, and, strangely, you like it too—unpleasant though it may be, the guy’s ramblings are nothing if not compelling.

Were he by himself, Finn would probably sound like a nutcase. But, with a first-rate rock and roll band behind him, Finn’s a dynamic showman, full of fire and zeal, part prophet and part salesman, with his own twisted version of genius. His band, The Hold Steady, breaks little new ground on their sophomore album, Separation Sunday, but, when it comes to driving, propulsive rock music, they’re one of the most thrilling groups recording today. Separation Sunday works with the kind of piledriving momentum that so many other rock albums are lacking; it’s seamless and addictive, making it difficult to listen to just one of two tracks. The whole thing works as a piece, one big, beautiful mess of garage-rock guitars and pounding drums and very few discernable verses or choruses. Splashes of piano provide brief moments of calm for us to catch our breath, and flourishes of E-Street horns add some punctuation, but, overall, this is back-to-basics, bare-bones stuff, played with such ferocious energy that it sounds these guys are discovering rock music for the very first time.

It’s a surprisingly deep work, with much more to it than first meets the eye. Initially, Finn’s weird ramblings and provocative imagery can be hard to wade through, but close inspection reveals that Separation Sunday is really his retelling of the Prodigal Son story. It’s a Springsteen-like narrative of sin and redemption—with more than a few witty asides and strange tangents. The story follows a Catholic girl named Holly—short for Hallelujah—beginning in a gutter and taking us into the heart of drug culture before culminating in a resolution for the ages—“Father, let me tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Happy MLK Day from Nina Simone!

Music lovers of all shapes and sizes hit pay dirt today with the relese of several new Nina Simone recordings-- compilations and expanded, remastered editions of earlier classics, all available now at your local record store.

For what its worth, I've still never found a Nina compilation as uniformly excellent in its song selection as The Nina Simone Anthology-- an absolutely essential two-disc collection that boasts just about all of Simone's definitive cuts, each one of them a gem. But some of these new sets sound fantastic in their own right-- especially intriguing is an expanded edition of Nina Simone Sings the Blues-- which earns a five-star rating from AMG critic Thom Jurek-- and Forever Young, Gifted and Black, a thematic compilation of Simone's protest and activist songs.

Who would have thought that the first must-hear new releases of 2006 would be recordings that are several decades old?

Aimee Mann: The Forgotten Amp?

Wowsers... here's the first entry on my list of 2006 Tours I Desperately Hope I Get to See: Aimee Mann... acoustic! And it sounds like she'll be playing some choice nuggets from her older albums, as well as plenty of stuff from The Forgotten Arm. Billboard has the story.

Here's hoping 2006 sees more exciting tours like this one!

Monday, January 09, 2006

'Tis the Season, round IV: AMG can't feel the Illinoise

All Music Guide has just posted their year-end extravaganza, listing the 50 best albums of 2005. It's a decent list-- kudos to the AMG editors for remembering Andrew Bird and Fiona Apple-- but there's... oh, just one little oversight.

You can also view lists from individual AMG editors, or look at the year's best recordings by genre.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Bird Watching

Great news for Andrew Bird-watchers! According to his Web site, he's recording a new album this year, re-issuing a pair of rare older albums, and going on tour! Pitchfork has the story, including dates and tracklisting for the two re-issues.

'Tis the season, round III: Overstreet weighs in!

Here's a year-end list I've been eager to see-- Jeffrey Overstreet's Top 10 Recordings of 2005, posted at Looking Closer.

I've heard all of the albums on his list, and can safely say that they're all winners. Having said that, this is the first year in a long time when Overstreet's list and my list have diverged from one another quite a bit. Last year, our lists were almost identical; in 2003 I ranked Joe Henry's disc as my favorite while he went with Over the Rhine, but other than that the similarities were striking; and I didn't post a list in 2002 for the simple reason that Reveal didn't exist, but if I had it would doubtlessly look similar to the one at Looking Closer. This year, though, my #1 pick is #5 on his list, and his #1 is my #3; also, there are five albums in my top ten that don't chart anywhere on his.

I have no idea where I was going with that; I just thought it was an interesting observation.

Oh, and for what its worth, I think Overstreet's brief summary of Illinois is better than my full-length review. Damn!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Reveal's 2005 Music Wrap-up

My turn!

I've kicked off what will hopefully be a year of more frequent site updates by posting my annual music wrap-up-- an article featuring various year-end ramblings, including the list of my ten favorite recordings of 2005. Here's where all the fun is.

A few of these selections will surprise absolutely no one; others may catch you off guard. Hopefully I'll have a chance to go back and actually review some of these surprise entries in the coming week or two-- January is, after all, a slow month for new releases, so it's a good chance for me to catch up on 2005 reviews before the 2006 stuff starts pouring in.