Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Lou's Top 20 of 2008, Part 3

Here's the third in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2008. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

6.) Damien Jurado - Caught In the Tress (Secretly Canadian)

On eight albums over the past decade plus, Damien Jurado has quietly amassed a catalog establishing him as simply one of the best singer-songwriters ever. This album is one of his finest and considerably burnishes that credential. After opening with maybe the poppiest track of his career, the infectious "Gillian Was A Horse," Jurado delivers his usual procession of alternately aching, unsettling, and haunting indie-folk, many given a welcome extra kick here by a rock-solid rhythm section, the beautiful harmonies of Jenna Fisher (who composed the creepy hoe-down "Best Dress"), and well-placed keyboards and cello. There are too many excellent tracks here to pick highlights, so suffice it to say that Jurado has proven his greatness once again with perhaps his strongest album beginning to end.

7.) The Mumlers - Thickets & Stitches (Galaxia)

A truly unique debut that throws in just about everything including the kitchen sink instrumentally and stylistically. Traces of everything from jazz to r&b to '40s pop to Eastern European folk are detectable. A delightfully loose horn section somewhat akin to a Dixieland funeral band carries a few of the songs while avoiding the tendency of brass instruments to be oppressive. The songs remain the focal point and are the album's strongest asset. "Whale Song" is a beautiful, fingerpicked love ballad, "Untie My Knots" recalls Muswell Hillbillies-era Kinks, while "Hush" brings The Band to mind with its countryish tune entwined in a swirling melange of keyboards. This band's ability and creativity is already staggering and bodes extremely well for its future.

8.) Okkervil River - The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar)

Whether or not they continue their prolific output in 2009, Okkervil River will go down as the best band of the decade, having released five albums that would have made the Top Ten in any year. The Stand Ins continues in the more theatrical and rockier direction O.R. waded into on last year's excellent The Stage Names, and apparently continues its concept, which I still haven't exactly put my thumb on yet. Regardless, "Singer Songwriter" provides a vehicle for vocalist Will Sheff to portray a wry mid-'60s Dylan, "Pop Lie" hovers around New Wave, and "On Tour With Zykos" is a beautiful if despairing piano ballad. All of it achieves the excellence fans have come to expect from this band and which they have consistently delivered.

9.) Ladyhawk - Shots (Jagjaguwar)

Just about every Ladyhawk song is a visceral experience, whether it pummels you from beginning to end like album opener “I Don’t Always Know What You’re Saying” or “You Ran” or crawls painfully to the crescendo of a searing solo on “Faces of Death.” Shots is simultaneously looser than the band's great eponymous debut while still containing amazing pop hooks in nearly every track. Some new textures like (gasp!) the occasional keyboard or the girl-group backing vocals on “Night You’re Beautiful” add some new depth to the band's outward austerity.

10.) The Donkeys - Living On the Other Side (Dead Oceans)

Another Southern California band under the spell of the magic of a bygone era, though they are apt to look north to conjure the Grateful Dead at the height of their stoney rootsiness of the early '70s. It boggles that the Dead's legacy has become entwined with the ridiculous "jam" bands when it is far more faithfully represented in the aching "Dolphin Center," the breezy "Pretty Thing," the country stomper "Bye Bye Baby" or any number of other tracks here. The acoustic "Dreamin'" detours toward CSN&Y, but "Boot On the Seat" is an American Beauty for sure and maybe the best here. Those guys were on to something back then and these guys are now. An easy album to dig.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Lou's Top 20 of 2008, Part 2

Here's the second in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2008. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

11.) Bodies of Water - A Certain Feeling (Secretly Canadian)

It's hard to know exactly what to say about this band/record. It doesn't sound quite like anything else I've ever heard, though neither is it incredibly unusual. There are a lot of male-female harmonies/gang vocals and creative arrangements of simple basic rock instrumentation (though you do get an ambitious Sergio Mendes-inspired coda on "Even In A Cave"). There is a good mix of uptempo rockers and powerful (and pretty) dirges. Great enthusiasm is totally evident through it all. The band's equally strong self-released debut was also reissued by Sec Can this year.

12.) National Eye - The Farthest Shore (Park the Van)

This Philadelphia collective's third album is its most focused to date, leaving behind the snippet-like tunes of its predecessors for more fully formed songs without losing the weird charm or melodic hooks. The brilliant melange of odd instrumentation remains as well. As does the strong Bowie-Eno influence. So perhaps Shore isn't so much different as it is, well... better.

13.) Calexico - Carried To Dust (Quarterstick)

I, for one, was a bit taken aback by this album's predecessor, 2006's Garden Ruin, which--while enjoyable--seemed a bit like a contrived departure from the band's previous work. Fans should feel a little more at home with Carried, which opens with the Mariachi-tinged "Victor Jara's Hands." Next, the excellent "Two Silver Trees" nods toward the poppier material on Ruin, but about splits the difference between that record and 2003's definitive Feast of Wire, of which the same could be said of the record as a whole. Vocalist/guitarist Joey Burns' songcraft is allowed to come to the fore throughout, continuing to distance the band from its challenging early work, but maintaining its fierce originality. The beautiful "Slowness," a country-ish duet with Pieta Brown, is a highlight.

14.) Conrad Ford - Secret Army (Tarnished Records)

One of the great things about making a year-end list is finding out what I've really been listening to all year. For instance, my meticulous research for this review revealed that Conrad Ford is in fact a band, and not merely a dude with a band. Regardless, vocalist-songwriter Andy McAllister (who knew?) lays down a nice vaguely Waits-ian rasp on these melancholy yet highly melodic tunes, while providing "Marry the Unknown" an Oldham-esque moan. A beautiful blend of pedal steel, Wurlitzer, melodica, banjo, understated drums, etc. is woven around them by the other Fords.

15.) The Dreadful Yawns - Take Shape (Exit Stencil)

This Cleveland band’s fourth full-length, with a completely new lineup with the exception of principal songwriter/vocalist Ben Gmetro, has its share of the rootsy, dreamy folk-pop that dominated its first three records but takes plenty of twists and turns as well. Opener “Like Song” is a groovy, jangly gem that could have come off of any of the Yawns’ platters, like “Catskill,” a beautiful, sad folk-rock tune that Gmetro harmonizes with new member Elizabeth Kelly. These numbers, however, sandwich the Nuggets-worthy “Queen and the Jokester,” which showcases a more muscular side to the new group. “Saved” carries on this newfound garagey swagger and appends the album’s first freakout. Kelly takes the lead vocal on both the sprightly “Kill Me Now” and the Apples in Stereo-like “Expecting Rain.” The rollercoaster ride really begins, though, toward the end of the record. “All the Dead Soldiers” is a hybrid of a typically enchanting Gmetro indie-folk showcase with a far out coda. Next, “Don’t Know What I’ve Been On” sees a trippy sunshine-pop number morph into a disarmingly chaotic jam before wrapping up at length with a fingerpicked acoustic and hushed harmonies. Finally, the closing “Mood Assassin” melds a sweet Kelly vocal with an angular indie-rock barrage and a string section into the most significant departure of the album and a truly new frontier for the band. While all the left turns are a bit shocking at first, this record only cements the Yawns' status as one of the most original and under-recognized bands out there today.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Lou's Top 20 of 2008, Part 1

Here's the first in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2008. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it.

16.) Sun Kil Moon - April (Caldo Verde)

Former Red House Painters mastermind Mark Kozelek's first album of originals since 2003 continues at times in his well-established vein of majestic, haunting, hypnotic albeit stripped-down soundscapes with an unsettling air despite their outward calm. But right from the pretty acoustic lead-in to the opening "Lost Verses," there is something new at play here, as well. Several songs play out like a slideshow of snapshots with an old lover that you are allowing yourself to smile at again, and the dual comfort that comes from looking back and yet knowing you are moving forward at the same time. But at times, the sadness still comes to the fore. "I have all these memories and I don't know what for/I have them and I can't help it," he sings on the virtually perfect "Like the River," on which he is joined by a well-suited Will Oldham harmony.

17.) Jesse Malin - On Your Sleeve (One Little Indian)

The concept of a top-notch songwriter like Jesse Malin releasing an all-covers record is a bit odd on the surface, but a diverse and enjoyable selection of covers has always peppered his live sets, and his distinctive and expressive vocals simply envelop a good song no matter the composer. He transforms some tracks (The Bad Brains' "Leaving Babylon" into an almost loungey shuffle, the Stones' "Sway"--an especially ballsy choice--into dark synth-pop, Elton John's "Harmony" into a complex blend of trip-hop and orchestrated pop) and plays others relatively straight (Paul Simon's "Me and Julio," Lou Reed's "Walk On the Wild Side," Neil Young's "Lookin' For A Love") The best moments are when he takes a great song that he obviously truly loves and just caresses it in his own fashion, cases in point Jim Croce's "Operator" and Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'." The domestic release unfortunately swaps out a few of the best tracks from the earlier U.K. release (The Ramones' "Rock and Roll Radio," Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World," Tom Waits' "I Hope I Don't Fall In Love") for weaker replacements, so pick up the import if you get the chance.

(Malin also released an excellent limited-edition live set, Mercury Retrograde, on Adeline Records this year.)

18.) Swing Set - How To Make a Living Selling Yourself Short (self-released)

The first solo record from Alex Brenner, frontman of wonderful Pittsburgh-native country-rockers Sodajerk, currently on hiatus in Georgia after moving South a year or so ago. The material here is still pretty country, with stronger hints of indie singer-songwriter ("emo," if you must) influences. In whichever direction Brenner turns, you get remarkably well-constructed and affecting tunes and heartbreak all around.

19.) The Coal Porters - Turn the Water On, Boy! (Prima-UK)

The Coal Porters is the band founded by Sid Griffin--leader of the great '80s L.A. country-rock revival act The Long Ryders and noted music journalist--upon his relocation to England around the turn of '90s, and made three strong albums in a vein similar to Griffin's previous work during that decade before virtually disbanding. Suddenly, the group reemerged in 2004 as a full-fledged bluegrass band with Griffin on mandolin and a brand new supporting cast of British pickers. While the band's first release in this incarnation, 2004's How This Dark Earth Will Shine, missed the mark a bit, its second album is a triumph of fiercely traditional music through a fresh lens. It is a bit disarming to hear bluegrass in a British accent when guitarist Neil Herd and fiddler Hana Loftus step to the mic, but every track here is well-executed and thoroughly enjoyable.

20.) The Quarter After - Changes Near (The Committee To Keep Music Evil)

Los Angeles has always produced bands who wear on their sleeve a debt to the city's hyper-influential '60s folk-psych-rock boom, from the Paisley Underground in the 1980's to acts like Beachwood Sparks and The Tyde in this decade. The Quarter After are one of the latest and best adherents to that tradition, following up their excellent eponymous 2005 debut with this equally engaging follow-up. Honestly, the band is one of the most derivative of their ilk, which sounds bad on paper, but they pull it off convincingly. Their clear intention is to sound like The Byrds, and they do. And there's not a damn thing in the world wrong with that. Vocalist Dominic Campanella even sounds like Gene Clark, which if practiced has been practiced well. "Counting the Score," the most country-ish number yet in the band's canon, sounds like it could have come right off of Gene's '67 solo debut. On "Turning Away," Campanella reveals that he has practiced a bit at sounding like Roger McGuinn, too, which also comes out as nothing but enjoyable. I would prefer to think of this band more as kindred spirits to these legends than imitators, but if the worst you can say about The Quarter After is that they sound too much like the greatest American rock band of all time, I'd say they're doing pretty well.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Byrds, Burritos books go to extremes

Rock biographies are a double-edged sword. On one hand, we love to know every minute detail and amusing anecdote about our heroes, while on the other I could do without reading several hundred pages worth of some self-proclaimed expert’s opinions of the same records I long ago formed my own opinions about. A litany of pointless criticism is liable to ruin even the most informative rock tome.

Two new books from Jawbone Press on two of my most worshipped bands, the incestuously linked Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, illustrate well the extremes commonly found in the genre.

Christopher Hjort’s So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star: The Byrds Day To Day 1965-1973 is no less than a chronology of every known concert appearance, broadcast appearance, recording session, contentious departure, etc. during the existence of America’s finest rock band, plus plenty of info about the band members pre- and post-Byrds careers. Chock full of photos, concert flyers, press clippings, contemporary concert and record reviews, and interviews with members and associates, this is probably too much information for all put the most crazed Byrdmaniac. So of course it makes me drool.

The very fact that this book exists is testament to The Byrds’ enduring legacy and influence and their admiration by generations of rock cognoscenti. But what becomes clear far sooner in the 336 pages than might be expected is how rocky a career the band endured and perhaps how remarkable it is that they managed to become so exalted.

The band’s commercial star burned out much more quickly than that of most bands who have retained such a lasting profile (they achieved all seven of their U.S. Top 40 singles within two years of their number one debut, “Mr. Tambourine Man”), and even during this period suffered more than their fair share of misfortune, from the sudden departure of primary songwriter Gene Clark to scathing reviews of their concerts (likely deserved since they basically refused to rehearse) to the groundbreaking “Eight Miles High” being dubiously labeled a “drug song.”

More interesting than the rather well-documented era of smash hits and teen idolatry, though, are the accounts of the band’s frustrating mid-period of flop after brilliant flop on the charts, the crumbling of the group during the recording of The Notorious Byrd Brothers, the sudden rise of the unknown Gram Parsons from sideman to frontman and the resulting jolting shift to country music, and Parsons’ departure as quickly as he had come on the eve of a disastrous South African tour and his subsequent coaxing away of Chris Hillman.

Unpredictably, stability reigns toward the end of The Byrds’ story, as Roger McGuinn surrounds himself with a new group which—almost in direct inverse to the early days—becomes a popular and respected live act while its records are unfairly maligned or ignored before McGuinn—after having stuck it out for so long—jilts his most tenured lineup for a brief and ill-advised reformation of the original group.

Since this book is not written in narrative there is little chance for the author to interject his opinion, though the opinions of about everyone else in the world vested with a couple inches of copy at one point or another is here, which is interesting on many levels but quite dense. This is not an easy read but is a great browse, and I am sure it will be a regular companion during the frequent occurrences when one The Byrds’ records is on my stereo. This is probably not to be recommended for the casual fan, but devotees will want it in their libraries.

Hot Burritos: The True Story of The Flying Burrito Brothers by John Einarson chronicles the life of the band Parsons and Hillman would form upon leaving The Byrds, the commercial impact of which was virtually nil but who are cited constantly as primary influences among several succeeding decades worth of country-rockers. Following on the heels of Einarson’s enjoyable books on Buffalo Springfield and Gene Clark, there is a lot to like about this book, too. Einarson’s writing is generally meticulously researched, entertaining, and clear in its admiration for his subjects but not deferential to a fault. The bulk of the book provides great insight into the life of a band that needed and deserved chronicling. Most of it is a good read, and Einarson wisely keeps his own opinion largely out of the accounting.

However, one man’s opinions are ubiquitous, which would be “co-author” Chris Hillman. (Not sure when giving a long interview began to qualify one as a co-author, but whatever.) I am a Chris Hillman fan. I love many of his songs and records. But I wouldn’t care much about his opinions even if they weren’t so curmudgeonly and featured so copiously as they are here. No one has the right to tell the story of the Burritos and give his take on their legacy more than their co-founder and the only constant in the authentic early incarnations of the group, but what comes out is that Hillman has an axe to grind and that Einarson is more than happy to indulge him.

Two entire chapters of Hot Burritos are basically fully devoted to Hillman’s repeated contentions that Gram Parsons wasn’t all that good. One of these chapters is the first one, which basically made me want to shelve this book before I even got to anything of substance. Hillman takes pains to minimize Parsons’ songwriting contributions, complain about his singing, and blame him for the band not achieving its potential. (The opening chapter also seems to have been rushed and contains some factual inaccuracies and editing mistakes, as well.)

Now, I feel for Hillman on some level. It isn’t quite fair that Parsons is revered at least in some sense because of his romanticized erraticism, substance abuse, and overdose death while Hillman has continued to toil workmanlike on his music to this day. It’s true that some of the classics from the Burritos’ magnificent 1968 debut The Gilded Palace of Sin are routinely referenced as “Gram Parsons songs” when they were co-writes with Hillman (and that Parsons’ vocal triumphs “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2” were primarily conceived by bassist Chris Ethridge). And it’s a shame that Hillman had to coerce, prod, and sometimes physically force Parsons to attend recording sessions and gigs.

True enough that there would likely not have been a Flying Burrito Brothers, or indeed a Gram Parsons as we know him today, if not for Chris Hillman. But neither would there likely have been a Flying Burrito Brothers or the legacy of country-rock left by The Byrds and Burritos without Gram Parsons. Despite the man’s apparently deep character flaws, a lot of people just love his singing and songs and records. And to read Chris Hillman discounting him today just seems sad and petty. It is especially sad that Hillman basically asserts that he regrets even forming the Burritos with Parsons and wishes he had not worked with him after Parsons had left The Byrds in suspect circumstances.

(To be fair, Hillman seems to dislike a lot of stuff besides Parsons, from basically everything any of his former bandmates did without his involvement, to virtually every drummer he ever played with, to—somehow—Clarence White’s electric guitar playing.)

I will reiterate that despite the cloud Hillman hangs on the whole affair before it even begins, the meat of the book is all well and good. Maybe a bit too much effort is made to talk up the dross-filled first post-Parsons Burritos album, but the account of the latter day Burritos (much like The Byrds) becoming for the first time a well-oiled concert draw made me dig up the vinyl of the live Last of the Red Hot Burritos recorded during that period. But Hillman, like McGuinn seemingly threatened by stability, would break up the band for what must have looked like the greener pastures of backing Stephen Stills (yikes!). And, unfortunately, we get a closing chapter where Hillman gets to rehash all of his gripes.

Neither of these books is likely to much alter whatever popular perception exists of these bands today, but both in their own way should add to fans’ consciousness of these somewhat legends as people and musicians, despite some excess on both counts.