Sunday, November 30, 2008

Holiday Music: Bruce Cockburn

As we emerge from the Thanksginving weekend and enter into the high holiday season, I must admit that I am a total uncrtical fan of holiday music (primarily Christmas tunes given my upbringing). I have a kind of embarassing amount of holiday music and I am really pretty resistant to hearing too much of it during December. Don't ask me to listen to a single track before Thanksgving, but after that, it is my primary set of music.

As a result, it will be unavoidable for me to not write about it since it will represent the majority of what I will listen to for the next month. However, in the interest of hopefully keeping the small random group of TR readers coming back, I have developed a kind of "advent strategy" to posting about holiday music. I am going to limit myself to one disc a week leading up to Christmas. My goal is to give you one pop/rock influenced album, one jazz, one classical, and one "classic" holiday disc--the last category providing me the opportunity to post on anything I want as long as I deem it a classic. See how that works?
Okay, so let's get started. My first offering is Bruce Cockburn's 1993 release simply named Christmas. If you like Cockburn's music and you like holiday tunes, this is a must have. It is all acoustic, just in case you were worried that Bruce might bust into one of his rocking rages where he tears into the commercialism of the holiday--his point is more subtle here. This album is focused on the history of this music and on conveying a real sense of belief in the best of this season.
He travels through music to give us 16th century Spanish music, to "The Huron Carol" from the 1600's in Jesuit influenced Canada, to a host of traditional carols. But this is no world-music disc as the music really feels like a group of musicians sitting around with guitar, fiddle, dulcimer, harp, accordion and more re-telling these stories and celebrating something quite spiritual through their interpretations of these songs.
The arrangements are the key with gospel and blues being the driving genre. Cockburn's folk sound (here with a heavy dose of French-Canadian feel) mixed in with his usual story-telling orientation creates a certain sound that is simple and joyful.
Here are a few samples. The first is "Early on One Christmas Morn" which Cockburn reports first hearing on an anthology of early gospel recordings--this one by The Cottontop Mountain Sanctified Singers (dig that name!). The second is one of my favs "I Saw Three Ships". Lastly, there is "Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes" which you will quickly recognize as "Angels We Have Heard on High" which is a traditional French carol from the 18th century, but as Bruce notes has a "rhythmic groove . . . written right into it."
I think these will give you a sense of what makes this album so special.

Early on One Christmas Morn Buy Album
I Saw Three Ships
Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving All!

May your day be warm, safe and shared with friends and family.


Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

RSHIP: Easy Listening

Haven't had a whole lot of time to think carefully about music and posting--in part because work has been eating up life in a variety of ways.  One way was the conference I ran this past weekend at your basic DC hotel which involved a variety of, um, melodramatic events.  But the 48 hours in the hotel was highlighted by far too much time hanging out in the hotel general space listening to the easy listening soundtrack they were playing.

We were amazed by songs that apparently were too rowdy in their original form to be included and so required being remade into softer, easier to listen to tunes.  Songs like "Don't Stop" by Fleetwood Mac or "Beautiful Tonight" by Eric Clapton apparently were just too hard in their original form.  And if I could even name one of the hundred bad easy-listening-love-duets they played I would, but I can't.  

But here is the song that gave me my biggest eye-roll of the weekend.  I challenge you all, dear readers, to name a sappier song. 


Friday, November 21, 2008

Getting Ready for the Flood

Seems we have been hearing about the forthcoming almost-Jayhawk reunion album Ready for the Flood for some time with even a review or two despite the fact that the album isn’t due out until early next year. However, I did notice that the import is coming out in just over a week so it seemed appropriate to do a little pre-release post on Mr. Louris and Mr. Olson.

I am pretty anxious to hear this new effort as I have been recently going back and listening to the early Jayhawk albums which are really quite wonderful. I have also been listening to Louris’ new and first solo album Vagabonds (which I discussed briefly earlier this year) and Olson’s latest solo effort Salvation Blues.

Both of the solo efforts are worth a listen, although neither of them measure up to this duo’s work together. Olson’s album is just a bit too melancholy and barren for me even when he is singing about redemption and that he is now in that happier place. His songs are well-crafted (better than most these days) and the music is fine, but I am just not a huge fan of his vocals on their own. 

The Louris album is stronger I think, although he relies more on arrangements and production that seems closer to Jayhawk style, which might be why I prefer it. There is a better mix of country, blues and rock. He employees some great backing vocals so you get those great harmonies that the Jayhawks have and overall it is just a more interesting disc.

But still, there is not a chance I would pick either solo effort over albums like Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass. These albums, particularly the latter for me, are just solid all the way through with some near-perfect songs to my taste. The singing is beautiful and as I suggested above they are better together than apart. There is something about how their vocals mix that makes their voice in some cases seem wonderfully indistinguishable and in others the perfect counter to each other (dare I say Lennon/McCartney).

They also seem so confident on these albums—not like they know everything, but that they are sure of their intent with the music (which I find a bit missing on their solo efforts). Makes me wonder if that is age or circumstance, or if there is something about them singing together that elicits that quality—we will see. Until then, here are some samples for you to compare.

Salvation Blues – Mark Olson (Buy Album)
Vagabonds – Gary Louris (Buy Album)
Sister Cry – Jayhawks (Buy Album)
Blue – Jayhawks (Buy Album)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Oasis, Coltrane, Soundgarden and Originals: Must be Brad Mehldau

Covering the waterfront doesn't quite capture what Brad Mehldau and his trios (and other iterations) have been doing for the last decade. This is a guy who can not only do the whole soft jazz trio thing and then jump to some serious bop tunes with a wall of notes, he can also move into a free jazz frenzy or play the blues. And of course, what a Mehldau group might be most known for is identifying modern pop tunes and moving them into the jazz genre in such a way that you feel like you are fortunate enough to be listening to that moment when a song gets wrenched from its origins to become known as a jazz standard rather than just a jazz cover of the latest rock or pop tune.  And what I think makes Mehldau different on this front is his ability to choose the right songs from the Beatles to Radiohead.
So it should have come as no surprise to me when I first heard Mehldau's latest effort with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard and the disc opened with a cover of "Wonderwall" by Oasis.  Well, cover doesn't really, er, cover it.  The guys take a great pop tune (regardless of what you think of those Gallagher brothers),  and turn it into an absolutely fun nine-minutes of swinging jazz, highlighted by Grenadier's wonderful funky bass line underneath Mehldau's great sense of melody and improvisation.
But that is really only the beginning of this fine two-disc compilation from their 2006 stint at the Village Vanguard in which they play everything from slow lovely standards such as Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You" to rippin John Coltrane pieces such as "Coutndown" to a 23 minute version of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" (which gets a bit too free jazzy for me, but just for a moment).  In addition, there are some great Mehldau originals here, the best being "Ruby's Rub" which really shows off the trio's range of abilities.
The playing, as always seems to be the case with a Mehldau trio is Keith Jarrett trio tight.  I have to say that I really like Jeff Ballard's work on this effort.  I am no expert on drummers (and would have to go back and listen more closely to Jorge Rossy on earlier trio albums to see how it compares), but something about Ballard's touch which seems quick and very responsive to Mehldau's keyboard work--almost as if they are in a conversation at times--really rounds out the trio on this album.
So here is the trick.  Since the shortest track on this outing is almost nine minutes (and I know that most folks aren't hanging around here that long), I am hard pressed to pick out one track to share.  I really want everyone to take a listen to "Wonderwall" and as I said "Ruby's Rub" is an excellent and representative piece--but you can hear samples of those along with "Blackhole Sun" over at the official site.  So here is O Que Sera by Doris Day Chico Buarque.  This no simple bossa nova tune, but rather more of a laid back samba feeling blues which slowly moves into a more up-tempo musical back and forth between these three talented players.  
Enjoy and use that buy the album link as this one gets a 95/100 from the TR.
O Que Sera (Buy Album)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cardinology: In Which My Grading Philosophy Enters the Room

Note: so this is a post that I put up several days ago and it was summarily swept off this here blog which you can read about below. As I note, I am not re-posting because I think this is such a great post, but rather because it was something I put an effort into and I think this album is worth discussing (which is the reason for the post in the first place). So here we have it again without the music files.

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I am not a music critic. In fact, one might suggest that I am a bit too positively uncritical. Fair enough, but this leaves me in a bit of a pickle when I want to write about music that I find interesting, perhaps worth a listen, but not amazing. I want to be positive, but, at the same time, I want to provide some sense of my ambivalence or even dislikes--all of which makes me think back on grading college papers in my previous life as a faculty member.

See, writing comments on a student paper and giving a grade are two very different activities. Comments (hopefully) are formative and encouraging; whereas grades are summative and judgmental (I know it isn't that clean all you teachers out there). I will never forget how hard it was to give my first grades on a round of papers--I was so unsure about them. I knew what I wanted to say to each student regarding their paper, but judging them in that finalistic way (particularly when so many seemed like grades I wouldn't want to receive) was much harder. But ultimately, the grade became helpful.

It helped to know that the students were going (as I would have) straight to the grade and then (if they didn't agree) to the comments for justification (and if they did) for more pleasantries about how fine they were as writers. And so my comments were often oriented that way. Hey, wondering why you got a B? Here you go. But ultimately, I always tended to try to shape the comments as positive as possible.

Why oh why am I subjecting you to this recounting of my grading philosophy?! Well, here is the thing, I have been thinking that there might be some advantage to quantifying my reactions to music here in the TR with some sort of grade or score so you, dear reader, would know that while I liked two different albums, I liked one much more than another. And the new album from Ryan Adams and the Cardinals makes me think that this is definitely a good idea. Why?

Well, you see there has been so much hype and talk about Cardinology and then it was released and so many folks were disappointed (including our favorite Ryan Adams scholars) which resulted in others getting all defensive, so it seemed that it might be helpful to be as clear as possible when weighing in here.

And this (to take another digression) is why I really do love the Metacritic which aggregates and "quantifies" reviews on a standard scale (oh, the false security of numbers). The results for Cardinology thus far are a solid B- (80/100)--oops, a C+ (78/100) as there are new reviews in. It works (in this case) to eliminate overly cranky Pitchfork reviews and overly fawning Entertainment Weekly reviews and gives you a decent mean and median of the reviews that I generally find pretty accurate (including this album although I am going to come out slightly higher with my grade).

Are you still with me? Thanks (we will actually start talking about the album now).

So, if I were to grade the new effort, I am pretty sure I would come down somewhere around a low B--perhaps an 83 just to let Ryan know he just barely scrambled into the B (not B-) tier--I am sure he will care. So why a B?

First, I agree with many of the critiques that this album is not on par with other efforts from Adams and in particular you miss the country influence a bit on this album. Second, there is a bit too much middle-tempo music and lastly and most importantly the lyrics are lacking, even sophomoric at times. That said, I also don’t think this is just a "C" (average) album either. Here is the deal.

My first listen to this album confirmed every disappointment that has been written about Cardinology, but I listened more and then I found myself choosing to listen again and again. Hop in the car with a host of discs to choose from--in it goes. Riding the Metro or sitting in the airport, what's on the iPod, Cardinology. And what I have decided is that, well, I really like it as an album.

I like the transitions--one song ends and the next begins and you feel like one song follows another quite naturally. I admit that by the time we are near the end I am longing for the earlier part of the album, but that is a minor criticism. I like the trying on of the different musical influences going on here--whether it is the R&B feel of "Fix It" or the gospel sound of "Let Us Down Easy." I even dig the somewhat silly lyrics and early Tom Petty rockin' sound of "Magic" which I would listen to just to hear Ryan's spittin P's and B's.

There is simply no argument about the musicianship here--even those who are disappointed with the album appreciate the musical performance of the Cardinals, the singing of Adams and the production of the album. And despite the less-than-perfect lyrics, often the well-produced mix of lyrics and music overcome that fault.

And lastly, I think I am into this album because at this point in my life I appreciate the "maturing" narrative and the fact that Adams is trying to deal with managing change and growing up. I find myself patient with the effort and the subject and am willing to see the value in what is being dealt with here. I feel tremendous calm and hope in listening to the final track "Stop" as Ryan clearly articulates recovery efforts (not to mention I love how that tune transitions back to the opening "Born Into A Light" for those listening on CD with repeat on).

So objectively, I am going to stick with the low B grade, but I also have to say that it is a B effort I have enjoyed while recognizing its place in the overall Adams' catalog. I still encourage folks to take a listen and see what you think as I am not convinced this album should be kicked to the curb just because it isn't the best thing that Ryan and the Cards have produced. As UNCUT puts it so well in its review:

Ultimately, “Cardinology” serves as another minor indictment of Adams’ famously lackadaisical internal editor. Nevertheless, it is still, almost infuriatingly, a stretch better than most people at their best. And, it being a Ryan Adams album, its misfires and drop-shorts matter less than they otherwise might. He clearly can’t help himself. There’ll be another one along presently.

Hard to decide what to put forward for samples given that I would like to share the first several tracks to give those who haven't heard the album a sense of the track progression, but here are three that I think represent the album pretty well.

Check out the official Cardinology site, where you can jump to their MySpace page to hear tunes and also buy the album.

Friday, November 14, 2008

My First Google Take Down

Did you stop by in the last 24 hours?  Did you manage to work your way through the long post about Cardinology and my grading philosophy from my previous life?  Were you here early enough to check out any samples that were put up with the intent of promoting said album?  Were you here when I immediately took down the samples as requested by Box.net (which I use to host music files for the site) so you only got to read the tortured post but didn’t get a sample, but still were provided with a link to BUY THE ALBUM?!  Were you here before the entire post was removed by the all-seeing Google without so much as a how-do-you-do?   

Okay, so I wrote about this whole issue (which was really just picking up on Paul’s more comprehensive post) about our outdated copyright sensibility in the new world order a week or so ago, but I am surprised how personal it feels that Google just “swept” my site.  Of course the real question is why?   Am I irritated because:

  • I spent too much time on this particular post and didn’t save it outside of Blogger (which I actually thought about given the recent discussions of this very issue)?
  • Am just a bit peeved that it was a post about Ryan “I can’t be bothered with your stinking rules of behavior” Adams that provided me with my first “take down”?
  • I just feel so violated?
  • I was just thinking what a great idea this commenter had to say on STWOF and was thinking that perhaps I should put the samples in a side bar widget so the take downs wouldn’t impact a particular post?
  • I thought Google was going to be more hip and less corporate than any other, um, huge corporation?
  • Gosh, I might have actually believed I was promoting music not theft, copyright infringement or anything else you old-stinkin-property-owning-capitalists are ready to accuse me of!  (sorry)

Well, needless to say it is just one, not all that well, tortured blog post lost.  And now I will join others in thinking through the whole enterprise.  But for now this is how I feel about the whole thing.

Be My Enemy (The Waterboys)

Update:  with a clearer head this morning, I realized that Google is most likely its own worst enemy and indeed am right.  Here is the cached version which I will probably clean up and repost sans mp3s--just cuz I am stubborn SOB, not becasue the post is so important.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

RSHIP: Borderline

First song Neats and I heard upon arriving in the cosmopolitan city of Montreal (in the taxi from the airport as we hurtled toward downtown). I try not to read too much into these things.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tres Bien! Hot Club of Detroit

So Neats and I are going to escape to Montreal for the weekend where we have not been since we honeymooned there (as children--without children) nearly 20 years ago.  This gives me the perfect opportunity to talk about the new album, Night Town, by the Hot Club of Detroit since jazz and Montreal are clearly just one step away from Paris, n'est-ce pas?    Obviously named after the Hot Club de France with guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist St├ęphane Grappelli, this is a guitar-based, 1930's-influenced swing band focused on Django-compositions,  but there is more.

These guys clearly love the Django and so do I.  In fact, I generally don't want hear anyone trying to copy Django as I almost always react to bands trying to emulate him and his band by thinking of Emmet Ray in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown--Emmet was the greatest guitar man in the world . . . except Django--and often I feel the same way about Django influenced groups.

But with that caveat,  I have got to say that I have been really enjoying this album by Hot Club of Detroit (HCoD), both for it's straight up Hot Club sound (and all of Paris clubs and cafes that it evokes) but also their efforts to expand the repertoire to include other jazz idioms.  And there is no denying that these guys can swing.  If you aren't into Django and the 30's sound you won't like it.  If you are but can't accept a modernized and cleaner sound of that music (which I understand), you also won't like HCoD.   But if you are into Django and can deal with a bit more polished sound  (and you also dig the move from the 30's swing sound to the Blue Note years), I am going to bet you enjoy this effort.
To give you a sample, here are three tracks.  First is "J'attendrai" which was, of course, recorded by Django (and others), followed by "Speevy" which is written by Reinhardt and Grappelli--these should give you the sense of the great playing by the band and thier reverence for the traditional Hot Club sound--particularly by lead guitarist Evan Perri.  Then to give you a sense of the expansionist sense of HCoD, we have "Blues Up and Down,"  a Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt tune that allows Carl Cafagna to show off a bit more muscular tenor sax (although he blends his alto well into many of the other tunes).  All around, a swingin' affair.
So open up the red wine, order some pommes frites, and take a listen.

Hot Club of Detroit:  Night Town (Buy Album)

J'attendrai
Speevy
Blues Up and Down

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Bloggers and the Big Boys

Lately I have been reading a bit about bloggers and others looking to share and promote music who have run into various dilemmas around copyright issues and threatened legal action by large recording companies (and the RIAA).  I wanted to bring those to light here at the TR not only because I find the changing ways and media through which music is shared to be interesting, but also to spread around a few stories about folks out there doing some really fine work who have found themselves in a bit of David and Goliath situation.

First there was the whole dust-up between Muxtape (which allowed users to upload their music in “mix tapes” to share with other online listeners) and the RIAA.  David reported on that earlier this year and you can read the whole saga from Muxtape-creator Justin Ouellette. Not to ruin the ending, but the outcome was a pretty unsatisfying compromise in my mind given where MT started.  That is not Justin's fault.  His efforts and commitments through the process are highly commendable and ultimately I bet there will still be a lot of great music coming from MT in its new band-oriented portal format--but the bottom line is that the platform is lost to everyday users.

The question that whole situation brings up is the question of sharing and “fair use” vs. the intellectual property rights of the musicians and record companies (although I haven't heard of musicians really being the issue here) and that is the question that Paul over at Setting the Woods on Fire has been struggling with as he receives “take-down” notices.  If you haven’t visited STOF before, it won’t take you long to realize that this is a serious and informative music blog (with a very particular attitude about music) and that having it shut down would be a loss for musicians and listeners alike, but that appears to be where Paul is headed.  And to that end, he asks an important (perhaps the fundamental) question as he attempts to submit his blogging to the “fair use” doctrine. 

Less clear is “the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” Will posting an mp3 cause readers to seek out and buy the full album of an artist they might never have heard otherwise (in which case there will be a positive effect on the market)? Or will it stop potential customers from paying to download the same song (in which case the effect would be negative)? That question has been the subject of some research, but no conventional wisdom exists. I think the fact that so many artists openly encourage music blogs to post mp3s of their songs strongly suggests that responsible mp3 blogs are helpful to the industry, at least on a case by case basis.

I can only answer this from my own experience although I suspect it is not entirely unique.  I have always been a fan of music and a collector of music, but my pursuit of new music slowed for a couple of reasons.

First there is this thing called life including families, work, etc. and that just speeds up as we get older—so time was an issue.  But connected to that was the sorting—sorting through all the myriad of musical offerings out there and trying to make sense of the and select well rather than just increasing consumption to keep up with supply.  And that is where music blogs have become key for me.  

Sure I still read the rags (just about all of which now come with a sampler CD, hmmmm) and talk with friends some about music, but it is the community of music blogs that I read that are the real source of a lot of what I listen to and experiment with.

Of course that doesn’t answer the question of why not just swipe mp3s, load them into the old iPod and save some dough.  Well, that might have to do with age.  While I am old enough to remember (and covet) my brother's 45 rack or those groovy plastic 45 record carriers, I grew up with albums.  Even more so, I grew up in a time when bands that had single hits on an otherwise sucky LP were derided as lucky.  The album is the unit of measure for me—it matters how it opens, how it holds together, whether it is too short or too long, or my worst case scenario is a great album with one horrible song right in the middle.  Samples are just an introduction, not a replacement for the album.

So for me, the advent of music blogs has meant more purchases not less.  I could list of a dozen albums I have bought this year because of a review I have read and a sample I have listened to on other sites—albums that would most likely have never been purchased by me otherwise. In part, that is how I try to share samples with those of you who are kind enough to stop by here at the Room.  I could just play you my favorite song, but that would be just me saying I like this. Instead, I have been trying in my short time running this blog to give some representation of the album or band being discussed as means of encouraging readers to support that particular artist.

I suppose it is a bit reductionist to argue that it is just about sales, but I am pretty confident that is the issue.  Of course even when you try to work within the legal framework as Justin did, you find out that even when you are willing to ensure the record companies get their fair share, they are going to keep asking for more, so I suspect we are in for a long and bumpy ride.