Tuesday, June 30, 2009

While I Was Away: Sun Kil Moon

Somewhere in the last six months, the Pandora delivered a wonderful nugget via my acoustic station when the soft vocals of Mark Kozelek caught my attention. The song was "Carry Me Ohio" off Ghosts of the Great Highway by Kozelek's current project known as Sun Kil Moon. (I will say right off that I have none of his previous work with Red House Painters, but will be looking into it.) So I picked up Ghosts which was released in 2003 and subsequently have picked up the more recent release, April from 2008.

This is one of those bands who I found through listening and then listened to a lot before I really read anything about them other than some background info, so it was interesting to then head over to the big board and read various reviews that reflected much of what I heard (well the positive reviews, of which there are many for these two albums.) Still I find it hard to describe the music.

Let's start with the obvious. It is slow. I mean all of it. Even when the band plugs in a few more instruments, the tempo is still slow. This is certainly not to say uninteresting, just slow. The music is primarily Kozelek, which is to say guitar and vocal oriented, with guitar often layered on other guitar. Most of it is acoustic, but some of the nicest tracks involve a wall of low volume distorted electric chords running throughout. Within that context, Ghosts is more varied musically with a bit (I mean a bit) more rock to it.

The lyrics all have the feeling of haunting memories--although it is more poetry than story telling (with some exception). Ghosts has a much more historical feel while April seems more personal more often. Kozelek's vocals are smooth, embedded and almost lost in the tunes, but like the music as a whole, they invite you in to stay for a while and dwell with them.

Now this is certainly not for everyone. I think you have to start with a certain appreciation for a kind of alt-country sound that is a bit more stylized and then you have to be willing to hang with songs (Kozelek seems pretty set on only writing songs closer to seven minutes in length than three). Most are subtle variations on a theme rather than songs with radically different parts as Kozelek seems to want to work thourgh an idea or feeling, as well as certain musical phrases, in multiple ways before leaving them.

That said, I have found myself pretty entranced by the music. I think Ghosts is solid from start to finish with a wonderful mix of songs. April suffers from length a bit. It clocks in at about 73 minutes which is just too long for me (still a child of the 50 minute album ya know) and I could find a couple songs to drop (although there are only ten--again my point about longer songs). Still I keep coming back, finding a different song or sound or lyric catching me each time.
A nice aside about April is that there are four alt takes, but SKM has packaged them neatly on a separate disc for your consideration.

Okay, that is enough of an attempt at explanation. Let me give you a couple samples to see what you think. First from Ghosts, I am going to start with "Carry Me Ohio" since that is where I started. That is followed by "Pancho Villa" which is an acoustic version of "Salvador Sanchez" (which is the most amped up tune on the album and on my first listen seemed out of place, but I now love) which I think captures a key Kozelek sound. And then, moving on to April, I am just going with one tune (since the three together will require a bit of your time already). "The Light" is the second tune on the disc and will give you a sense of Kozelek's use of electric guitar which often sounds very Neil Young like.

Here is hoping you enjoy as much as I have.

Ghosts of the Great Highway (Buy Album)

Carry Me Ohio
Pancho Villa

April (Buy Album)

The Light

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Regina Spektor: What Say You?

So in the last week I have noted more than a few mentions of Regina Spektor's new album, Far. I have none of her stuff which always seemed beautifully sung, but a bit quirky, leading me to think I might not really listen to her music routinely (which I generally hope for when I buy an album). Then today, while running an errand, I heard this interview with her on Studio 360 which raised my interest again.

The last time, I considered picking up her work was based on Lisa B. playing this video for a while over at The Store--it is a beautiful tune.

Regina Spektor - Samson
by reginaspektor

So Spektor fans (or detractors), what say you?

Friday, June 26, 2009

While I Was Away: Justin Townes Earle

So one of the artists I was catching up with during my little blog hiatus was Justin Townes Earle.

You may insert your own paragraph here about his namesakes: Papa Steve Earle and best bud Townes Van Zandt. The questions of heritage, pressure, etc. have already been covered to death so I am going to skip it other than to say that his music has some influences and is at the same time different. Duh. Oh and then there is the obligatory discussion of his early addiction problems that have been now held in check resulting in these two albums which I am also going to pass on given how thoroughly that has already been covered.

No, the question before us, good readers, is the two full albums he has released in the last two years, The Good Life (2008) and Midnight at the Movies (2009). Here again, I am not breaking any new ground by suggesting that while they are both well worth a listen, the second effort clearly out does the first. But in my mind there is no real reason to evaluate them in that way. They are different in some significant ways, but I tend to think of them as two discs that simply should be listened to at different times in different moods.

First the similarities. Both albums are throwback, honky-tonk country albums with similar subjects. I am hard to live with, why do you put up with me? Your hard to live with, why do I put up with you? I have messed up enough in my short life, why should I judge you? You have your own problems, why are you judging me? Relationships, vices, family, overcoming vices and occasional character sketches.

They are both well mixed. Good Life is brighter with a more "live" sound while Midnight is more polished and orchestrated, but both are open with a solid balance of instruments whether it involves pedal steel, fiddle, or just guitars and the rhythm section. Each song on it's own is well-constructed and Justin's song writing abilities are clear.

The differences? From where I stand, Good Life is a good collection of songs like a good set at show. The songs are more upbeat overall than Midnight, but the latter album is just that: an album. It holds together better and ultimately the songs themselves are better for it. They are more complex and move from one to another better. Good Life feels a bit more like Justin is trying out different sets and styles moving from honky-tonk, to 2-step shuffles, to slow blues, while Midnight feels like it was put together in a more thoughtful way. It isn't that Midnight doesn't have variation, but more that it feels like variation on a theme--a theme that is, in fact, Justin's life--that makes for a good story.

So while I would clearly recommend Midnight if you were only picking up one, I would recommend both. Play Good Times early in the evening while hanging out with friends on a Friday night and things are getting going. But as the night progresses and you are chillin' a bit (and perhaps you have moved on to something requiring sippin'), throw on Midnight and let it drift over the talk. Or given that the two albums together only last a little over and hour, listen to them back to back as one flows nicely into another.

Here are a few to give you a taste. As usual it is hard to figure out how to just provide a snapshot of a whole album, so I am going with title tracks and then one other tune that reflects some of the variation. As it happens, if you let the player go, you will get the experience of one album ending and the next beginning. Bonus!

The Good Life (Buy Album)

The Good Life
Far Away In Another Town

Midnight at the Movies (Buy Album)

Midnight at the Movies
Halfway to Jackson

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson: RIP

Okay, I am not going to say much here, but as someone who lived in Motown from 1969-1973 and hung out with his sibs listening to the CKLW: The Big 8, Michael Jackson and his brothers were a big part of the sounds of my early music listening days. So today, a piece of my childhood just passed. Rest in peace.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Silver Spring: The New Brooklyn?

Odd how music intersects with life. I haven't listened to Branford Marsalis' award winning 1992 jazzy-blues effort I Heard You Twice the First Time for a loooong time, but it used to be a frequent listen, particularly during hot summer days (it always seemed like a disc designed for hot sultry summer nights). But then this past Monday a colleague from work and I were working hard to catch a cab since we were two of the thousands stranded in downtown D.C. due to the awful accident on Metro's red line which we ride daily.

We were at Union Station, but the taxi line there was a gazillion folks long, so we walked over to a hotel where cabs normally congregate only to find, well, no cabs. However, we were able to flag one down and jumped in quickly as we were, of course, competing for the driver's attention. From there, the conversation went something like this:

Us: We are going to the Silver Spring Metro stop.
Cabbie: Uuuhhh . . . .
Us: Silver Spring Metro stop?
Cabbie: Pulls over toward hotel where someone is shouting they need a ride to a recognizable location nearby.
Us: Silver Spring?
Hotel Bellman: These guys are going to Cleveland Park.
Cabbie: Hmmm, I know Cleveland Park.
Us: No, Silver Spring.
Pause . . .
Us: Do you know where that is?
Cabbie: No.
Us: Ah! We will direct.

And we did and he was gracious about it all--weaving in and out of DC streets to get to that foreign land known as Maryland (and yes, we made it worth his time). But the whole time, I kept thinking about the opening track of Branford's album. Now don't get me wrong--I am not suggesting there was anything remotely racial going on as is the case in this tune, it just made me think about it and made me break this album out.

It is a great set of blues driven jazz tunes with Branford's band at the time including Kenny Kirkland on piano, Jeff "tain" Waits on drums and Robert Hurst on bass. The guests on the album are a who's who of blues: B.B. King, Russel Malone, John Lee Hooker, Brother Wynton, Linda Hopkins and others. Neats and I also had the pleasure of seeing a version of this cast of players during our first stint here in DC.

The album runs the gamut from Branford's boppy jazz orientation to the KC/Chicago blues sounds of B.B. and John Lee to New Orleans jazz scene and generally explores all the connections between jazz and blues even looking back at working songs brought over from the fields of Africa. So here are a few samples for those of you who dig that wonderful intersection of jazz and blues (although it is hard to pick enough samples to represent the whole diversity that is this disc).

So why not just pick it up for yourself over at Branford's page.

Brother Trying to Catch a Cab (On the East Side)
Rib Tip Johnson

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Re-Start Me Up

Lately this blog has been calling me back. Why? Possible reasons:
  • The desire to share thoughts about the stack of music I have listened to since I left?
  • The need to express my dissappointment that Nick over at Indie Muse was right that the Decemberists went over the edge with Hazards of Love?
  • The worry that the world won't be complete if another blogger doesn't mark the release of the new Wilco album (oops, too late)?
  • It's summer?
  • The fact that writing the blog made me more attentive to other music bloggers and I miss that?
  • I don't want to dissappoint my two--count them two--followers?
  • Where else will I get to write about my daily check-ins with the Regeneration Tour?
  • The same silly assumptions I had when I started in the first place?
  • The even sillier assumption that I have enough time?
Who knows. But either I am or I am not. If not, then this is just a little snarky distraction on a random Tuesday. If I am, then we need to establish some new guidelines damnit, because the old ones just weren't working! Who established those previous guidelines anyway? And does anybody but me even know what they were? Okay, here are the new ones just in case I re-start.
  • While most of the posts will still be about music, I am not going to limit myself just to music . . . afterall, I have a life, you know.
  • I will not be obsessed about trying to stay current--I am too damn far behind as it is. (I have also apparently decided the new version of the blog will be cussier.)
  • Neither will I be obsessed about regularity (in posting that is)--we post when we feel like it at the Tuning Room 2.o (and don't test me with you plantive emails!).
  • There will be no scoring of discs, only reflections.
  • I am giving up on the idea that someone is going to join me and turn this blog into a group blog . . . and you call yourself friends!
  • Okay, I am sorry for that. Anyone who wants to start up a new group blog dedicated to music simply has to ask and I will be there like an excitable cocker spaniel.
  • And one final note to say that all guidelines are subject to random changes without notice.
And now I return to much self-reflection and questioning about me and this here blog.