Wednesday, April 28, 2010

New Column: Coming Attractions

I have a calendar on my desk that I use for new releases. Whenever I hear of a new album I'm going to want to buy, I write it down in the appropriate space on the calendar. For the next two months of Tuesdays, that calendar is full to bursting. I have no space to write anymore. To mix metaphors, it's a little like standing on the shore and waiting for the tidal wave you can see in the distance.

I also had a hell of a week, so I decided to take a little break at this week, and give you a glimpse of what's coming up. There's a lot - just next week, I'm picking up 10 or so discs. Now all I have to do is find the time to listen to them all...

I also revealed my choice for the #5 album of the 2000s. As usual, click on over to read it, and come back here to leave me a comment.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

First Listen: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, I Learned the Hard Way

Big thanks to Jeff Elbel for turning me on to the Dap-Kings. These guys play old-time soul music so accurately, their albums could have come right from the 1960s. Top that off with the sweet and sultry voice of Sharon Jones, and you have a recipe for awesome.

I Learned the Hard Way is just another great Dap-Kings album. Thick horn sections, sugary strings, vintage-sounding production (particularly on the drums), melodies to die for. These 12 songs could all be covers of standards - I wouldn't be surprised to hear "The Game Gets Old" slotted into any oldies station on the planet. But they're new compositions, crafted with the greatest of respect to their influences. At times, this album's a little slower than previous Dap-Kings efforts, but that just lets Jones show off her pipes a little more, and that can never be a bad thing. And even when she's not on board, like on instrumental track "The Reason," the Dap-Kings play with remarkable soul.

In short, this album is a loving recreation of a sound long gone, played by masters of the form. Listen here. Then buy. This is wonderful stuff.

First Listen: Gogol Bordello, Trans-Continental Hustle

I am late to the Gogol Bordello party, but I think I'm going to stay. Gogol Bordello is a multicultural band led by a mustachioed Ukrainian madman named Eugene Hutz. Trans-Continental Hustle is their fifth album, but their first for American Records, and it was produced by Rick Rubin.

Granted, Rubin's what got me in the door, but the music is what sold me. Gogol Bordello plays a highly energetic mix of dozens of different things, from acoustic punk to polka to klezmer to Brazilian carnival music. Hutz sings over it all with his heavily-accented bellow, while the band shouts along in support. It's all punk, but it's played with accordions and violins and timbales. It's pretty awesome.

Music like this makes me realize how limited my scope is. Gogol Bordello draws on so many traditions I'm unfamiliar with, so I have no historical perspective on what they do. I just know I like it. Word is that this album is more reserved than their previous four, and since this one's kind of insane in places, I can't wait to hear the older stuff now. If you want a snapshot of what one-world music might sound like, here it is.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

New Column: 88 Keys and the Truth

I love the piano. I've been playing the instrument myself since I was about six, which may have something to do with it, but I'm instantly attracted to piano-based music. Can't help it. From Ben Folds to Tori Amos to Bruce Hornsby to the two artists I reviewed this week at, I'm always looking for new artists with a flair for the ebonies and ivories.

This week, I took a listen to the new Aqualung, entitled Magnetic North, and the striking new Rufus Wainwright, called All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu. They're as different as they could be - Aqualung's is a cozy pop album, perfect for warm summer nights, while Wainwright's is the most intimate, nakedly emotional album he's ever made, parts of it in memory of his mother, Kate McGarrigle. But both are excellent, in their own ways, and both are based around the piano.

Also this week, my thoughts on Record Store Day 2010, a quick eulogy for Peter Steele of Type O Negative, and my #6 album of the 2000s. As usual, click on over to read the column, then head back here to comment.

Friday, April 16, 2010

First Listen: Jandek, Bristol Wednesday

For a couple of years now, I've made it a habit of annoying the fine folks at my local record store with each new Jandek release. I'll bring it in, and somehow convince the staff to give it a spin in the store, customers be damned.

When Bristol Wednesday hit, I followed tradition, intriguing young Kevin enough to get him to play it. And when the 24-minute first track, "Only Twenty-Two," started up with a shudder and roar, Kevin listened for a bit, then dismissed it, saying, "Same old Jandek."

I found that very interesting. Putting aside the fact that there is no one else on earth playing music like this, I suppose I've been listening to Jandek long enough that the slight variations between albums sound like massive tonal shifts to me. I definitely prefer the live albums to the studio ones - his solo acoustic guitar stuff is in a rut, I think - but Bristol Wednesday, to me, is a very different kettle of fish.

This two-disc album documents a show at Cube Cinema in Bristol in May 2006. The Representative from Corwood plays electric guitar, and he's joined by second guitarist Mick Flower and drummer Chris Corsano. The songs are all very long - the shortest is 9:05 - and the whole thing runs two and a half hours. But it's in these extended grooves that Jandek's evolution can be heard, I think.

True, his playing still sounds dissonant and random, but I think he's learning to listen to his collaborators, and create beautiful noise in tandem. The sound of the first disc is massive and chaotic, Jandek moaning over the din, but after a while, the three players really find a groove. The 19-minute "More Than I Was" really shows this, I think.

The second disc (set two) finds Flower switching to a shahi baaja, a form of Indian zither. It makes a high-pitched, ambient sound, and the tone of the show shifts accordingly - disc two is slower and moodier, if no less random. Finale "The Lesson" is kind of pretty, in fact. Far from being the same old same old, I think this record shows Jandek growing as a live performer, learning how to interact with other musicians without compromising the ugly beauty he creates.

As usual, Jandek music is not for everyone. But once again, he's released an album unlike any other I own. One day this story will end, and although I was skeptical of the man's musical motives at first, now I think the world will definitely have lost something unique. Learn more at Seth Tisue's Jandek site.

First Listen: Marillion, Tumbling Down the Years and Size Matters

Marillion is one of my favorite bands, and I buy everything they release. That means my collection contains dozens of versions of the same songs, in different contexts. For some reason, I never get sick of hearing these tunes, which is good, because the band keeps finding new ways to present them to me.

The latest two live albums document the Saturday and Sunday shows from last year's Marillion convention in Holland. Tumbling Down the Years finds the band arranging their material from most recent to least, one song representing each year. They start with 2009's "This Train is My Life," and end with 1981's "Garden Party," although they do skip a few years in the '80s.

Naturally, for me, this means the album gets less interesting as it goes along. Marillion's on an incredible hot streak right now, with Marbles and Happiness is the Road, and they've come a long way from their neo-prog early days. I like the old stuff, but listening to Tumbling is like hearing evolution in reverse.

For the Size Matters show, Marillion played 10 of their longest tracks back to back. The shortest is nine minutes, the longest 17, and the whole thing runs just over two hours. And it's marvelous. These are not easy songs to play, particularly numbers like "Interior Lulu" and "This Strange Engine," and listening to them tough their way through them is kind of inspiring. Plus, they play "Ocean Cloud," which may be my favorite Marillion song.

Both of these records are worth picking up, for fans and non-fans alike. There's also a DVD box set of the convention, called Out of Season, that will be available soon. Check them out at

First Listen: MGMT, Congratulations

There's an easy way to tell whether you're going to like the new MGMT album. If you bought the last one, Oracular Spectacular, for the singles ("Kids," "Electric Feel," "Time to Pretend"), and you thought the rest of the record was strange and off-putting, stay away.

Congratulations is being billed as a sharp left turn, but that isn't true. The band has just deliberately emphasized the odder, less immediate elements of what they do. The result is more Embryonic Flaming Lips than Yoshimi Flaming Lips, but the same touchstones remain. That said, you won't soon find yourself humming any of these songs, and the band has amped up the prog-rock, particularly on the four-songs-smashed-together epic "Siberian Breaks."

Still, it all flows nicely, and the funny little nod to Brian Eno helps to break things up. Instrumental "Lady Dada's Nightmare" is pretty wonderful, too, and the closing title track is probably the most melodic, ending things on a warmer note. Congratulations is a weird record, no doubt, but it sounds like one that will unfold over time. And it's good enough that I'll give it that time.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

New Column: Side to Side

Do side projects matter? Should they be considered and critiqued as thoroughly as an artist's "main" band?

That's the question this week at, as I take a listen to Jonsi's solo record, and side projects from three members of the Decemberists (Black Prairie) and Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls (Evelyn Evelyn). I also unveil my choice for the #7 album of the 2000s.

You know the drill by now. Click on over to read the column, and head back here to leave me a comment, should the fancy strike you.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

New Column: All You Need is Love

I'm running out of nice things to say about Taylor Muse.

As the leader of Austin, Texas band Quiet Company, Muse is responsible for my second-favorite album of last year, Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon. That record is grand and epic and beautifully melodic, tackling weighty themes with grace and wit. As you can probably tell, I liked it a lot.

Now Muse and company are back with Songs for Staying In, a six-track EP full of romance, wonder and light. Not to give away this week's column, but I liked this one quite a lot too. If you haven't checked out Quiet Company, well, allow me to persuade you.

Also this week, I dig into Dan Wilson's new live album, I reveal my choice for the #8 album of the 2000s, and I share some quick thoughts on Matt Smith and the new Doctor Who adventure. All that is waiting for you here. Come on back to the blog to leave me a comment when you're done.

Monday, April 5, 2010

First Listen: Pet Shop Boys, Pandemonium

In 1987, I heard a spooky little synth-pop ditty called "It's a Sin," performed by two guys who never smiled. I haven't looked back since. I'm a Pet Shop Boys fan, and no matter how uninspired their studio output gets (and it has), I will still buy it and at least try to enjoy it.

So I quite like Pandemonium, the first PSB live album to be released on these shores. It zips through an elegant selection of some of the Boys' best work, from their first single, "West End Girls," to their latest, "Did You See Me Coming." Along the way, they spin some of my favorites, like the lovely "King's Cross" and the dramatic "Left to My Own Devices." They merge "Domino Dancing" with a cover of Coldplay's "Viva la Vida." It's all clever and danceable stuff.

What's the problem? I'm just not sure how "live" this really is. I have yet to watch the accompanying DVD, but most of Pandemonium feels pre-programmed. Neil Tennant's wonderful voice even sounds looped and processed here and there. I'm sure it didn't matter to the audience at London's O2 last December, so I don't know why it matters to me so much. Pandemonium is like getting a swell remix of the Pet Shop Boys' best songs. But if you're looking for a real live album, I'm not sure this is it.

First Listen: The Weakerthans, Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre

I like the Weakerthans. They're not exactly what you'd call prolific - they've made four albums in 14 years - but what they do is precise and winning. They play a strummy sort of alternative rock, carried forth by John Samson's thoughtful, tongue-twisting lyrics.

I like the Weakerthans. But I didn't necessarily need to hear (or watch) them play these songs live. There honestly isn't much difference between the versions on Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre and the matching versions on their studio albums. This is a nice thing to have, but not exactly essential.

As for what's here, 13 of these 18 songs are taken from their last two albums, Reconstruction Site and Reunion Tour, so if you like those, you'll like this. It's good to have both Virtue the Cat songs on one disc, and songs like "Civil Twilight" and "Sun in an Empty Room" sound good live. I like the Weakerthans, and if you like them too, you'll enjoy this. But don't put off paying the gas bill for it or anything.