Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Long and the Short of It... Part 2

Well it's officially Christmas as I write this. The "Eve" has come to an end and while the other Elves are taking a much-deserved rest after building all those toys, I thought I'd get cracking on the second batch of selections from my longlist. Without further ado (and a Merry Christmas to you)...

Lightspeed Champion - Falling Off The Lavender Bridge (Domino)
I actually reviewed this for The Manitoban way back in January. Here's what I had to say about it:

This one took me completely by surprise. Dev Hynes – the mind behind Lightspeed Champion – is best known for his work with the short-lived but very loud Test Icicles. No one but Hynes could have known that after his noise-rock past, the present would find this British native recording in Omaha, Nebraska with Saddle Creek producer Mike Mogis, exploring roots-tinged indie-pop under the Lightspeed Champion moniker.
It's also a thoroughly pleasant surprise, as Falling Off The Lavender Bridge is one of the best releases of this new year (that may not sound like great praise but let us consider that 2008 has already seen new releases from The Mountain Goats, Cat Power, Black Mountain and The Magnetic Fields – heady company for Hynes).
"Galaxy of the Lost" was released as part of a promotional EP last November and it still stands up as one of the strongest tracks on the album, but the quality of Falling Off… is uniformly high and so "Galaxy" flows beautifully into "Tell Me What It's Worth," and the gorgeously orchestrated "All To Shit." That brief ditty segues to "Midnight Surprise" which is wonderfully layered by Mogis to provide a rich atmosphere for Hynes' warm tenor. If you aren't won over by the time this nearly ten-minute-long epic is over you're unlikely to ever fall for Falling Off… but really, that's the least of your problems.

Here's the video to "Galaxy Of The Lost"

British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music? (Rough Trade)
Another one from early in the year that stood the test of time. I'm not sure if the question is meant rhetorically but my answer is a resounding 'yes.' Especially when we're talking about the rock music produced by this group of talented Brits. While Do You Like Rock Music? doesn't quite clear the bar BSP set with their amazing debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, it's the third strong release from a group who turn their amps to 11 and wring every last reverbed note out of their guitars.

Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride (4AD)
UMFM Station Manager Jared McKetiak and I were discussing artists we would potentially hold a spot open for in our Year End lists if we knew they were releasing a record - John Darnielle is one such person for me. I don't think I've heard a Mountain Goats record I haven't enjoyed and they're the type of records that reward repeat listens. Darnielle is a hyper-literate songwriter capable of writing from his own experiences but equally adept at creating rich vignettes of the lives of others. From opener "Sax Rohmer, Pt. 1" about the writer behind the Fu Manchu series, on through a baker's dozen worth of songs, Darnielle adds to his burgeoning body of amazing work.

Luke Doucet & the White Falcon - Blood's Too Rich (Six Shooter Records)
I had the good fortune of seeing Doucet open for Blue Rodeo when he came through town a while back and if you happen to live in one of the cities he's touring through in the early months of 2009 - GO SEE HIM. He'll be touring on the strength of Blood's Too Rich and given the headlining spot the opportunity to hear more of this great record is well worth the price of admission. Here's what I had to say about the album when I reviewed it for Stylus back in the spring:

Doucet's not-so-secret weapon has always been his guitar work on the handful of albums he's released under his own name (and before that with Veal). On his latest, Doucet's guitar work is its strongest yet and the ringing tones he coaxes out of his instrument are richer than the blood of the title. That wonderful guitar is accompanied by 'the White Falcon' – a great backing band that includes Rich Levesque on bass, Paul Brennan on drums and Doucet's wife, Melissa McClelland on backing vocals. Blood's Too Richis the first album credited not just to Doucet and it's fitting as the band creates a rich backing for their leader's songs.
Whether he's singing about driving a rig, a man in Cleveland with a girl in the clink or faux-autobiographical tales of barroom reminiscence and living beyond his means, the White Falcon accompany Doucet with a gritty undertone to their playing that helps dirty up his vocals a little. Thank goodness, because as roots/country as the music is, Doucet's voice (like Jim Cuddy's, who guests on the title track and "The Commandante") is almost too gentle to sell these tales convincingly without it.
It might not be gritty, but it turns out Doucet's voice perfectly suited to covering Robert Smith and The Cure's "Love Cats." On paper it seems like a wacky choice, but Doucet nails it and tweaks things just enough to make it his own and not mere mimicry – plus there's that guitar of his again, shimmering and commanding the listeners' attention.

Here's Blue Rodeo backing Doucet on the album's title track:

Hayden - In Field & Town (Hardwood Records)
True story - back in the day when I was working at Record Baron in Brandon (it might have been Music Baron at the time; I can't remember when we made the switch), I was playing Hayden's The Closer I Get and some middle-aged dude (who, in my mind's eye, has a mullet but who probably didn't - this is isn't that long ago) shouts out "Boy this music sure makes you want to kill yourself!"
Backed by the members of Cuff The Duke, Hayden sounds a little cheerier on In Field & Town than he has in the past and the instrumentation is a little more muscular, but his delicate voice is still front-and-centre, delivering equally delicate lyrics. There's a populist poetry to what Hayden writes about - he's never overly flowery or ornate, but he conveys the everyday and universal in an artful manner.

Here's Hayden live in Vancouver, backed by Cuff The Duke:

Quantic presenta Flowering Inferno - Death Of The Revolution (Tru Thoughts)
For quite some time I've been referring to the album as Flowering Inferno but it turns out that's the name of yet another project for Will Holland (a/k/a Quantic). Not like the dude needs another project - between the output recorded under the Quantic moniker, his live group the Quantic Soul Orchestra, The Limp Twins, his remix work, DJ'ing, and curating some incredible comps, it's a wonder the dude has time to scour places like Latin America and the Caribbean for new sounds. But he does and he did - on Death Of The Revolution, Holland mixes dub, reggae and tropicalia to whip up a concoction that is incredibly catchy and indescribably deep. You could get lost in these grooves and hearing them just once, you'll want to.

Check out the awesome title track and see for yourself:

Forest City Lovers - Haunting Moon Sinking (Out Of This Spark)
Toronto indie label Out Of This Spark really caught my attention this year and from my first hearing of the new Timber Timbre, it will be keeping my attention in '09. While another OOTS artist cracked my Top 20, Forest City Lovers still represented well. They played a great in-store at Music Trader and Haunting Moon Sinking is a fully-realized and well-arranged record. (As an aside: are in-stores popular where you live? My experience with them is generally that about a half-dozen to maybe ten people are actually there to see the band, while a couple people mill about looking at the records and trying to ignore the performance). Kat Burns has a wispy but forceful voice that steers the musical ship for Forest City Lovers and you can't help but listen to her when she sings. But to my ears, the secret weapon FCL possess is Mika Posen's gorgeous violin. The string arrangements augment the impact of the songs on Haunting Moon Sinking as you can hear on "Pirates (Can't All Sail The Indian Ocean)" here:

Giant Sand - proVISIONS (Yep Roc)
Four years since Is All Over The Map and Howe Gelb has found a new (and highly suitable home) at Yep Roc. Here's what I had to say in Stylus:

How does Howe do it? Despite what he himself refers to as "attempted singing" in the liner notes, the gravel-voiced Gelb produces affecting and strangely beautiful music. It doesn't hurt that he has assembled a capable but un-showy band in Giant Sand, nor that he has surrounded himself with the likes of Isobel Campbell, Neko Case and M. Ward – but only Howe Gelb could deliver lines like "they talk like a filibuster / their words surrounding me / like I was Custer" in a deadpan atop Anders Pedersons haunting slide guitar on "Without A Word" and completely sell it. The man knows his strengths and writes for them (or at least his weaknesses and compensates for them).
Recorded partly in Denmark, Tucson and at the Woodshed Studios in Toronto, proVISIONS maintains a coherent sound and feel despite the changes of locale and credit for this is due to Gelb and his co-producer Kent Olsen – this collection of a baker's dozen worth of songs all have a little dust in their corners as they echo off into the desert sky night.
Of the album's title, Gelb says: "what we need in this day and age… folks with vision… positive vision." But a thorough scan of the lyrics find him painting fairly bleak pictures of the world – they might not be positive, but they're honest and compelling visions.

Here's a vision of Howe performing "Increment Of Love":

The Roots - Rising Down (Def Jam)
I was holding out hope for Rodney Smith to provide the best rap album of '08 but Slime & Reason was tremendously uneven and a far cry from 2005's stellar Awfully Deep. Leave it to the 'manuva'-less Roots to out raw Rodney and produce a record that it is awfully deep in its own right. Rising Down came out the gates blazing with a couple of videos that were gritty and in-your-face. "75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)" hit harder than Balboa pounding a side of beef and the images that accompanied it were just as visceral:

In a year when hip-hop was abuzz because Nas contemplated dropping the "N" word in something other than a lyric, and Kanye went all emo-mushy-self-referential on us it was up to Jimmy Fallon's house band to show us the way.

Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer (Sub Pop)
I just double-checked and this album didn't even make the Top 50 on Bitchfork's year-end list. In fact I haven't seen it on many lists and it's a shame because this Montreal group successfully avoided the sophomore slump and followed up the incredible Apologies to the Queen Mary with a very strong effort. All those side-projects didn't divert Krug & co. from the creative catharsis that is At Mount Zoomer. There are some fantastic sounds and songs here and I remember many a pleasant shift listening to this album with co-workers at Music Trader this summer. Shame to see it get overlooked.
Here's "Kissing The Beehive":

Well if my math is right, that's another ten from the longlist and we inch ever closer to actually discussing my Top 20 albums of '08. But I need to wrap this up so Santa can come drop off my copy of Lego Batman (*fingers crossed*).

Thanks for reading, now start listening...

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Long and the Short of It... Part 1

Well as I mentioned in my last post, I like to leave compiling a "Best Of The Year" list until as close to year-end as possible. That task is now done and UMFM Station Manager Jared McKetiak and I are busy pre-recording our New Years' Eve special (airing 4pm - midnight CST on UMFM 101.5 and streaming online as well), counting down our individual Top 20 songs and albums.
Leading up to that broadcast I'm going to do a couple installments on the albums that made my "longlist" but, due to a combination of objective and subjective criteria, just didn't make the Top 20.

All year long I've been keeping a list in the Notes section of my iPod with strong albums I've enjoyed and when it came time to figuring out my Best of 2008 list, I had about 60 albums in contention. This may sound like a lot of records, but it's a tiny fraction of the records I've heard this year. Between reviewing for Stylus and Uptown, my position at the station, working part-time at Music Trader and just being into music generally my best guess is that the longlist represents 8-10% of everything I heard. I strongly recommend checking the albums on the longlist out - I wrestled with what did and didn't make the Top 20 and would have loved to just come up with three separate lists. But that would be cheating. Anyway - here's the first batch of titles from the longlist, starting with some releases I've already covered on Ear To The Sound.

The Airfields - Up All Night (Humblebee)
This is a great mixture of pop and shoegaze and opener "Prisoners Of Our Love" made my Top 20 songs. I wrote about this record here.

Hello, Blue Roses - The Portrait Is Finished And I Have Failed To Capture Your Beauty... (Locust)
Dan Bejar has made my list in the past with his Destroyer project, but Trouble In Dreams didn't really float my boat. However, the project he did with life partner Sydney Vermont caught my ear and kept my interest. I wrote about it here.

Woodpigeon - Treasury Library Canada (Independent)
This one's getting re-released by Boompa in February, which I hinted at here. Since that post, I discovered a live video of the song "Knock Knock" which I had written about at length.

Kutiman - Kutiman (Melting Pot)
Israel's funk scene linchpin blew my mind here.

Snailhouse - Lies On The Prize (Unfamiliar)
There are an abundance of great songs on this record, but none more-so than "They Won't Believe You." This album was one of the soundtracks to my summer road trip.

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
Yeah, believe it or not, Pitchfork's #1 Album didn't even make my Top 20. It's a rich and beautiful album that sounds AMAZING on vinyl - an already warm recording envelops listeners like a blanket. Fleet Foxes have made a fantastic debut record and it kills me a little bit that I didn't find a place for it on my list. That said, "Mykonos" from the Sun Giant EP found a spot on my Songs list.

Mr. Scruff - Ninja Tuna (Ninja Tune)
Four years since his contribution to the Solid Steel release series and SIX! since his last full-length, Mr. Scruff returns with his playful take on breaks intact and a handful of high-profile guests to aid him: Roots Manuva, Alice Russell and Will Holland (aka Quantic) all bring their skills to making this an album that was worth the wait. Here's the video to "Music Takes Me Up" with Alice Russell's fantastic vocals.

Bill Dixon - Bill Dixon With Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey)
Thrill Jockey nearly took out a lease on my Best of 2008 list - there are two TJ releases in my Top 20 and Pit Er Pat's "High Time" likely could have found a place in the longlist. It didn't, but this free jazz explosion (pun intended) did. Legendary trumpeter Dixon joins forces with Rob Mazurek (Isotope 217), Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and the rest of the Exploding Star Orchestra for a fantastic aural voyage.

Calexico - Carried To Dust (Quarterstick)

Burns and Convertino are like the Lennon & McCartney of the American desert. They write such staggeringly beautiful songs that at their core are quite simple. But the arrangements and embellishments that the band as a whole brings to the material makes complexity out of simplicity. In another year, this album would have been right up there - as it was, Calexico did provide one of the most transcendent live experiences of the year for me: their workshop with The Acorn and Apostle of Hustle at the Winnipeg Folk Fest was amazing.

Okkervil River - The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar)
Jagjaguwar's another label that could've taken out a lease on my list, and Okkervil River nearly pulled off a back-to-back Top 20 placing after 2007's The Stage Names. Just how good a songwriter is Will Sheff? The Stand Ins are his freakin' outtakes from The Stage Names. His sloppy seconds put Sean Avery's to shame.

DJ Brace - The Electric Nosehair Orchestra Presents: Nostomania (Balanced Records)
Former UMFM host and Canadian DMC Champ DJ Brace unleashes a mind-bending turntablist experiment in line with DJ Shadow's Endtroducing... record. It uses the turntable as an instrument and combines a wide range of samples and noises to create something wholly new and original.

So that's it for Part 1, but keep your Ears peeled for more this holiday season.

Thanks for reading, now start listening...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

They're new to me...

The December '08/January '09 issue of Stylus hit the stands yesterday (and it's also on the completely revamped website where my interview with past Ear To The Sound subject Azeda Booth can be found) and it features Top Ten lists from a handful of the magazine's contributors, but it doesn't have one from me.
I try to wait as late as possible before assembling my year-end list (say, around year-end...) and the early November deadline for Stylus leaves nearly two full months of potentially overlooked music. Last year, I submitted a list of my Top Ten Reissues of the year because I never include reissues in my 'official' list (nor do I include compilations, best-of's or soundtracks for that matter) and this year I submitted my list of "Top 10 Discoveries of 2008 that aren't from 2008."
The list didn't make the cut however and wasn't included in the issue so I figured I'd post it here, along with a trio of albums that would likely have made my 2008 Best Of list were it not for the fact that I'm a stickler for rules and have disqualified them from eligibility because I've discovered they were released in 2007 (and re-released in 2008).

Number 10: Peter Sarstedt - Where Do You Go To My Lovely?

I owe Wes Anderson a debt for bringing this album to my attention - the short Hotel Chevalier that preceded The Darjeeling Limited featured the title track to this 1969 album from Indian artist Sarstedt (who curiously enough, grew up near Darjeeling). It's a lovely little bit of folk-pop a la Donovan and the rest of the album is as enchanting.

Number 9: Exuma - Exuma

Do you read Wax Poetics? Kudos if you do, but if you don't you should seriously get on that shit. Some of the best writing about jazz, soul, funk and hip-hop to grace the printed page. I found out about this 1970 album in the re:Discovery section of their rock issue and it is a crazy mixture of blues, funk, African rhythms and rock. Frighteningly good.

Number 8: Roy Milton - Instant Groove

I picked up a copy of this record on vinyl for $.99 at Dusty Groove in Chicago this summer and it was a stellar find - blues, r&b and jazz recorded in 1977 (and reissued on CD in 2004) by this in-the-pocket drummer and his combo.

Number 7: Clifford Brown - Study In Brown

I owe jazz artist Elizabeth Shepherd thanks for putting me on to this record. I had asked her in a lengthy interview about her favourite jazz records and she immediately mentioned Study In Brown (she's even written lyrics for some of these tracks with the hopes of eventually "covering" the album). An amazing hard bop record from 1955, it features Max Roach on drums and was one of the last albums Brown recorded before his untimely death at 25 in 1956.

Number 6: Quinteplus - Quinteplus

Released in 1972 on EMI, this Argentinian quintet's soul-jazz session was reissued by the fine folks at Vampisoul last year, with a vinyl reissue early in 2008. If you like Horace Silver or Lou Donaldson, then this album's for you.

Number 5: The Montgomery Express - The Montgomery Movement

"Steal Away" from this 1974 record makes my soul ache every time I hear it. The entire album is a beautiful blend of southern soul and gospel. The album was released on Folkways and it's a fitting home for this, the folk music of the American south.

Number 4: Salah Ragab & The Cairo Jazz Band - Present Egyptian Jazz

A compilation of material from 1968-1973 released in 2006 on Art Yard, this is some fantastic stuff. Ragab was a drummer and bandleader who worked with Sun Ra at one point and he incorporates Middle Eastern influences into existing jazz structures to create some pretty compelling and original spiritual jazz material. This is the record I alluded to in my Karl Hector & the Malcouns review in the last issue of Stylus.

Number 3: Margie Joseph - Margie Joseph

Pitchfork are a bunch of haters but I read them begrudgingly. Pop Matters doesn't rock the hate quite so much so I visit that site with less trepidation. Early this spring they rewarded my readership with a fantastic article on a forgotten soul vocalist who was supposed to be the next Aretha Franklin (Atlantic Record's words, not mine). Didn't quite happen but Joseph did put out some amazing records that have been reissued this year. Her self-titled 1973 album featured a cover of "Let's Stay Together" so good that the Reverend Al himself wrote her a congratulatory note.

Number 2: Bowerbirds - Hymns For A Dark Horse

Yeah, I think I've covered this one enough already.

Number 1: Daniel Johnston - Four original Stress-released cassettes.

This is a bit like putting Radiohead in Germany on your Top 5 Shows list - great for you but basically bragging to everyone else. But what can I say - I hit a stoop sale in Brooklyn this summer and found four original Daniel Johnston cassettes, including the fantastic Retired Boxer, and the dude sold me them for $.50 each. For two bucks I've got some great, rare cassettes and a story to brag about. Let the hating begin. So. Either go on eBay to look for these or pick up The Early Recordings issued on DualTone.

That's the list I submitted, with my added embellishments.
What I didn't submit and want to touch on now are the trio of albums I've disqualified from my 2008 Top Ten list that were so good I have to acknowledge them somehow:

Shugo Tokumaru - Exit (Almost Gold)

I was under the impression that Exit was released this year until a good friend informed me that it had been released in Japan last year and was picked up by Almost Gold (home to Peter, Bjorn & John among others). A zany mixture of children's toys, electronic loops and pop hooks so barbed they will stay lodged in your brain for weeks, Exit is a brilliant album. Too bad I didn't hear it last year.

Quasimode - The Land of Freedom (Sonar Kollectiv)

Reissued by the good Germans of Sonar Kollectiv this year, this is another record that was originally released in 2007 in Japan. Here's what I wrote in a review that also discussed Jun Miyake's Stolen From Strangers in the last issue of Stylus:
Quasimode ... come from Japan's vibrant club jazz scene (which includes the incredible Soil & "PIMP" Sessions), where the ebullience and energy of Ellington's orchestra, and Basie's bounce come together in modal party music that moves feet on the dance floor. After a brief 'intro-lude' Quasimode hit the ground running with "The Man From Nagpur" – a track that seems like they're setting the bar impossibly high for the rest of the album. Horns scorch like the heat from the rising sun, and Takahiro Matsuoka's channelling of Candido on percussion, with Yusuke Hirado's piano adding to the percussive pulse. Hirado really shines on the next cut, "Object In the Mirror," which features the great Carmen Lundy on vocals. It's no surprise that Quasimode's German label, Sonar Kollektiv chose it as the single. The band understands that audiences can't last on the dance floor forever and so they slow things down on the Latin-infused "Last Nine Days," offering a restrained respite before launching back into the melee with "Time Is Love."

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)

It broke my heart to disqualify this one - fitting since listening to songs from the album like "Skinny Love" also break my heart. This is on a lot of people's Best of 2008 lists and has even taken the top spot among some people I know. Released on Jagjaguwar (a label that had a phenomenal year in my opinion), For Emma... apparently had a limited life prior to that as an independent. Recorded in a cabin in Wisconsin it's an album perfectly suited to a Winnipeg winter like the one that has arrived recently. I might not be including it on my New Year's countdown on UMFM, but I'll be playing it over the holidays nonetheless.
Here's "Skinny Love" live on Jools Holland to take us out:

Thanks for reading, now start listening...