Highly Recommended Music, Volume 3
Highly recommended music. For just about anyone.
(listed in no particular order)
1) Solomon Burke - Don't Give up on Me
Label = Fat Possum
Let me make it easy for you - BUY THIS ALBUM. Why? Because you will like it. It's easily my favorite new recording that's been released this year. For those who don't relish in digging up dusty old records as much as I do, Solomon Burke is a soul singer who's been active since the mid-1950s, but never really got hit with limelight quite the way folks like Otis Redding, Al Green, or Marvin Gaye did. I like a lot of what he did in the mid-to-late 1960s, but this new recording is in my opinion perhaps his best - his phrasing and timbre are so expressive and tender - in a way that he was never able to attain early in his career. I know a lot of you might shy away from "soul", fearing the schlocky overproduced sound that seems to exist everywhere on modern R&B radio, but this album sounds every bit like a classic recorded years ago and only just now unearthed. Did I mention that you should buy this record? Well, you should.
2) My Morning Jacket - At Dawn
Label = Darla
My Morning Jacket hail from Louisville, Kentucky, and could easily be classified as "yet another country band" if it weren't for the fact that lead singer Jim James doesn't seem to have even a hint of twang. And then there's "that sound" they seem to achieve - it's an epic feeling that pervades everything on this CD, from the quiet acoustic moments to the more rocking, rollicking bits. That distant echo that sounds like it's coming at you swooping over the plains - I think I could listen to it all day - ok, I'll come clean. I have. "Don't let your silly dreams fall in between the crack of the bed and the wall..."
3) rainYwood - EP
Label = Rural Lifer (self-released)
You might have to work a little to hear this one, as it's a self-released affair, and is only available from the band (for a measly $9!). I had the good fortune to see rainYwood open for Appalachian troubadour Will Oldham earlier this year, and was immediately taken by their quiet bluegrass-y musings and mellow harmonies, and I remember thinking at the club - "The only thing that might make this better is if we were all sitting outside somewhere, like maybe on a porch in the country, and crickets were faintly chirping in the background." Well, they solved that on their little 5 song EP, which sounds like it was recorded on a porch in the country, and has crickets chirping away quietly through the whole thing. This is a beautiful little recording - I hope we'll get to hear more from rainYwood in the future. To order the CD, make a check for $9 to Rachel Hughes (she plays organ and sings), and send to PO Box 1271 Point Reyes Station, CA 94956.
4) Willie Nelson - Red Headed Stranger
Label = Columbia / Legacy
OK, this one is pretty much "straight up" a country album - but more an old-timey affair, before you needed a million dollars of plastic surgery and an affected accent to be a Country Star. From the liner notes (I got the re-release as it has a few nice extra songs), it sounds like the folks at Columbia Records weren't really sure whether this record should see the light of day - and who's to blame them, really? On the surface, an album that tells the story of a preacher travelling afar after killing his wife and her lover - recorded without the usual gloss of Nashville production, instead in a clean, stripped-down fashion with some acoustic guitars, mandolin, drums, harmonica, and piano - wouldn't immediately seem like a real winner in the sales category. Good thing they released it. 3 million copies later, it's become a classic. It's beautiful and sad and includes his tender take on the classic "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain".
5) Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Ease Down the Road
Label = Palace / Drag City
In concert, you never really know what you're going to get with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (aka Will Oldham, aka Palace, aka Palace Brothers, etc.) - he performs on a broad spectrum from stripped-down acoustic to full-on Southern rock a la Lynyrd Skynyrd, and has a habit of radically re-working songs so they bear little resemblance to the original studio versions. I'm never quite sure whether he's crazy or a genius - but more often than not, I find myself voting in favor of brilliance. After hearing his truly astounding 'I see a darkness', which dealt with the weighty topics of death, dread, and evil, I was quite surprised to find 'Ease down..." covering the topic of love in one form or another. He gets away with breaking all the rules (repeating words in the middle of sentences, rhyming "heard" and "word" with "void" just to make it fit) because I think he knows all of them. He's got an amazing ability to turn a phrase - "we will rise in anger, love, and ardor, shining shining shimmering in love's armor"; "she wears my favor and shows it around, and in doing so I too get blessed"; "we can age and fall away, to meet again some golden day, and fill it in our happy way in starlight and in gold". And hearing these tales of emotion, these stories that belay a deep knowledge of the human spirit - to hear them told in his dry papery voice - it's all the better.
6) the Aislers Set - the last match
Label = Slumberland
I know I've said it before - but I wish I could remember who it was who described the Aislers Set as "crash pop", because I want to thank them. It's an absolutely perfect description of the band's all-cylinders-firing-at-once blend of 60s pop and grinding guitar. On the fast songs, you feel like you're recklessly driving an old jalopy, careening faster, faster down the bumpy road, paying no heed to the dangers along the way because the wind slapping your face and tussling your hair is so darn glorious. But Amy Linton and her pals know well to slow down from time to time, and you get treated to pretty melodies and snappy instrumentation from handclaps to organs to horns. I think it's wonderful that it all sounds like it was recorded in someone's garage or living room - in fact, it was - but if you prefer the sound of a big budget, you might not like it too much.
7) the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Plastic Fang
Label = Matador
Those of you who are regular readers of my little writeups may recall that the Rollins Band's "Get Some Go Again" was for a long time the album that served as my running companion when I hit the streets. Apologies to Mr. Rollins, but he's been displaced. I've been a fan of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for some time, but have had a hard time recommending their albums to a broad audience as they've at times gone a touch too far into wailing, punked-out blues for "general consumption". I may lose my indie rock credibility by recommending 'Plastic Fang' because those rough edges are gone here - but heck, this is one bangin' fine album. It's as much a spin through post-modern blues as it is a throwback to the early days of rock n' roll - think early Stones. And it's fantastic to run to.
8) Jorge Ben - Africa Brasil
Label = Universal / Mercury
So there I was relaxing on a couch at Temple Bar in Santa Monica, glass of Guinness in my hand, waiting for DJ Cut Chemist to take the stage, when all of the sudden, the opening DJ dropped the needle on a record and out leapt this incredible bass line and rumbling of drums - a blend of Brazilian sound and thumping soul power. Have you ever had one of those moments when you hear a song you've never heard before and just *have* to know what it is? After pausing a moment, and looking a little displeased at revealing a secret, the DJ told me it was the first track on Jorge Ben's Africa Brasil album. And now I share the secret with you - while the first song is definitely the standout on the album, it's all-around solid, melding elements of Brazilian rhythm, soul, and every once in a while a touch of disco (but not too much).
9) Antibalas - Talkatif
Label = Ninja Tune
The 15-member Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra picked up roughly where Nigerian artist Fela Kuti left off when he died in 1998. It's an amalgamation of African rhythms blended with jazz and a touch of funk. While a good portion of their songs are based on very repetitive horn phrases, I find that it doesn't get boring or tiresome because there's a palpable energy that courses through the music. While 'Talkatif' is a little more laid back than their first album 'Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1', it lacks their overt politicizing which I find detracts from their debut release a little.
10) Gotan Project - La Revancha del Tango
Label = !Ya Basta!
While I love the bossanova rhythm quite a lot, it's almost been hammered to death by countless downtempo electronic artists. Pardon me while I speak heresy - but there's really more to life than bossanova. Like tango. Enter Gotan Project, who tackle the tango rhythm and set it - smartly - to a blend of electronic beats and samples, but don't loose touch with the organic. There's a wealth of "real" instrumentation here from acoustic guitar and piano to violin and of course the omnipresent accordion - and beautiful vocals on some songs by Cristina Vilallonga. I first heard Gotan Project on one of DJ Rainer Truby's Glucklich compilations and worried that if they ever put out a full album that it wouldn't hold up to that one single - but never fear, this whole album is as good as that one song.
11) Koop - Waltz for Koop
Label = JCR
If electronic keyboards and sequencers had been available back in the 1960s, I'm sure you could have walked into a smoky jazz club somewhere and heard the breezy swing of Koop's tender vocal jazz arrangements wafting through the umbrage. "Somewhere" probably would have taken you to Sweden, as Koop is essentially two Swedish electronic musicians / producers, Magnus Zingmark and Oscar Simonsson, joined by various jazz vocalists (both men and women), as well as soul singer Terry Callier (whom some out there may remember as an occasional collaborator with Beth Orton). A testament to their arrangement skills - when I'm listening to 'Waltz for Koop', I frequently forget that a good portion of the album is done electronically. Don't be turned off by the fact that there are guys wearing strange orange dresses on the cover.
12) Cinematic Orchestra - Every Day
Label = Ninja Tune
The extremely well-named Cinematic Orchestra is the brainchild of one J. Swinscoe - and I say well-named because Mr. Swinscoe's brilliant, sweeping orchestrations (some clocking in at over 10 minutes) sound like the soundtrack for a movie never yet made. I found their first album tough to listen to straight through because it had one very jarring song midway through - but 'Every Day' is a blissful mellow journey the whole way through - a svelte blend of electronics, soulful vocals, outstanding acoustic and electric bass, and a sweeping sense of widescreen cinematic sound. My apartment gets immensely cooler every time I play it.
13) Lemon Jelly - lemonjelly.ky
Label = XL Recordings
Let me start out by saying that I really don't think that taking drugs is a good idea. Now, I don't know for *certain* that the guys behind Lemon Jelly take drugs, but I have a suspicion. You see, I just can't imagine that making whimsically brilliant songs about sea elephants, about what you do in the bath, about the kindness of mythical King Raam - could possibly be done in perfectly sober frame of mind. As best I can tell, the Lemon Jelly team are extremely adept sample-meisters, taking snippets of other people's songs and making their own music out of it - and they do it well enough that for the most part, you're not aware of what they're up to. It's as good a background soundtrack to a party as it is a nice one to relax to. And I find it's impossible to listen to 'lemonjelly.ky' without being happy, so it's been getting fairly heavy rotation around here. Many thanks to my friend Glen for pointing this one out to me.
14) Park Avenue Music - to take with you
Label = Devil in the Woods
Just in case you didn't see it on my favorite releases of 2001 list, I thought I'd highlight this album one more time, as it's now been officially released. I think it's really hard to make electronic music sound organic - so easy to be seduced by precision, perfectly cutting a sequence of beats - so easy to head down the cold path of techno body machine music. Hard to create something alive and warm, something you can embrace and hold. But the Park Avenue Music duo of Wes and Jeanette manage it. It's a quiet affair. One with washes of electronic sound flowing into melody, rhythms that melt and mutate from regular form to wandering, and Jeanette's vocals that ooze between words and sound. It's a precious organism, and one that I seem to invite in again and again.
15) the American Analog Set - the golden band
Label = Emperor Jones
On my Favorites of 2001 list, I described the American Analog Set's album "know by heart" as sexy like hot chocolate - I guess for me, "the golden band" is sort of the original hot chocolate, so to speak, as it's the first album I ever heard by the band, and it remains my favorite. It's a mellow affair that inhabits primarily the low end of your speakers, and does so slowly and quietly. There's rarely a silent moment to be found here - whether the drifting drone of an electric organ, a bass, or Ken's not-quite-whispering vocals. This album has lulled me to pleasant slumber on countless occasions.
16) Belle and Sebastian - Tigermilk
Label = Jeepster / Matador
I have a tough time deciding which of Belle & Sebastian's albums is my favorite - while there are individual songs I like better elsewhere, Tigermilk, the band's first album, ties together better for me - a neatly wrapped collection of smart Scottish pop tunes. The orchestrations aren't quite as sweeping as they are on some of their later albums, but here you'll still find a touch of their trademark beautiful arrangements of strings and horns - it seems that nobody writes songs like this anymore. And certainly very few people can put lyrics like this together ("Oh love of mine, would you condescend to help me because I'm stupid and blind? Desperation is the Devil's work, it is the folly of a boys empty mind.") - and still be wry ("My brother had confessed that he was gay, it took the heat off me for a while") and tender ("On a beech tree rudely carved, NC loved me, Why did she do it? Was she bored, or pushed?"). If you've not yet gone down the Belle & Sebastian path, this is their beginning - a very good place to start.
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