Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Honorable Mentions

Photo Credit: Kate Wurtzel
In keeping this blog over the course of this year, I have noticed faint traces of the Heisenberg principle: the closer I try to examine my listening and musical tastes, the more elusive and complicated it becomes. Despite feeling pretty satisfied with my final top 20 list, I still feel like there are a few albums that I would like to acknowledge. If that’s the case, though, why not have a top 30? Or 50?

Well, I struggle enough to keep things brief on this blog without concocting massive lists. I think that 50 is too many. I enjoy checking out lists like this, but even I lose interest and perspective after a fashion. Still, there are a few recordings that did not quite make the cut, probably due to minor inconsistencies. I prefer not to dwell on the negative. Rather, I would like to recognize the strengths of these albums with the understanding that there was just a little something that kept them out of the top twenty.

TV on the RadioNine Types of Light: I still struggle with this one. I would suggest this album without reservation, but, as stated above, it just barely got edged out of the top 20.

BattlesGloss Drop: Battles moves on after the departure of Tyondai Braxton. It’s just not the same, but overall, it’s still an admirable effort.

Metric – Fantasies: This album produced what is probably my favorite single song of the year, the infectious Gimmie Sympathy. For good neo-New Wave power pop, make a stop here.

LiteIlluminate/Turns Red: This collection of EPs also contains a couple of incredible singles that have kept me coming back. Special recognition goes to Lite for a mindblowing SXSW show.

The Budos Band III: Another band with a great live show. If you like one of their songs, you will like all of them (which is sort of their downfall).

Daft Punk - TRON: Legacy Soundtrack:  This one ended up in play from last year's Christmas list.  It got better with age, but still couldn't quite crack the top 20.

I hope that you all have a safe and happy new year. I will be back in January to hit the reset button for the best albums of 2012!  See you on the flip side.....

Friday, December 30, 2011

Porcupine Tree's Early Work: "Stupid Dream" and "The Sky Moves Sideways."

Beginning in high school, I very rarely listened to the radio and I only purchased mainstream music after special consideration. I propelled my listening habits by reading liner notes, articles and reviews, taking recommendations, and, thanks my long-term involvement in record retail, I sometimes test-drove something new in the event that it would present itself. I rarely ran into any serious ruts or dead ends. Still, there was a huge amount of music going on that danced outside of the horizons of these resources, so the internet had a pretty significant impact on my listening when it began to emerge in the 90s. To my amazement, I found out that progressive rock was alive and well, and a cornucopia of incredible music came to light. This is when I found out about Porcupine Tree.

Porcupine Tree began as a joke: a studio-only band fabricated by guitarist and producer Steven Wilson. The first couple of albums were almost entirely Wilson working solo, using drum machines and sequencers to fill out his psychedelic experiments.  Since then, Porcupine Tree has gained a bit more visibility, and with good reason. In my opinion, Steven Wilson is maybe the most consistent artist in recent history. In the last fifteen years, he has created more good quality work than nearly anyone in a similar span of time. Porcupine Tree began to receive a bit more notoriety in the mid-00’s, so if you are just becoming familiar with the band, it is likely that at first, more recent albums like The Indicent or In Absentia will be suggested as places to start. Porcupine Tree’s mindblowing consistency makes purchasing nearly any of their albums a good bet, but it was their pre-2000 work that initially caught my attention. I think that it would be a shame if these incredible albums were lost in the shuffle, because they are fantastic works in their own right.

By the third album, it became apparent that the hypothetical band, which had garnered some underground interest by virtue of their early releases, should evolve into a live, performing group. Wilson made this transition in 1995 on The Sky Moves Sideways, which was my entry point for the band. This album really grabbed my attention in 1998 when I put it in rotation. Thanks to Wilson’s breathy delivery, melodic atmospheres, and long-form compositions, Porcupine Tree was hailed as the “Pink Floyd of the 90s,” a label that Wilson apparently resented. By Porcupine Tree’s towering standards, The Sky Moves Sideways is a bit outdated, but it is still a masterful album that laid the groundwork for what the band would become.  I had never seen early clips of this work until I found this one yesterday.

The album that really put the group on the map for me, however, was 1999’s Stupid Dream. Wilson refocused Porcupine Tree for this album, and began applying the melancholic atmospheres he developed in his early work to more succinct songwriting. Stupid Dream was still identifiably progressive and it provided a foundation that allowed me to rethink the genre as forward looking rather than incestuously retrospective.  Among all the new and exciting music I was getting into at the time, this album was distinctive, and with incredible songwriting, amazing lyrics, and unbelievable musicianship, it sat very comfortably in my post-power-pop-era prog listening tastes.

Today it is still my favorite album from Porcupine Tree, and easily ranks among my all-time favorites alongside Discipline, Frengers, and a short list of others. This clip is from a later incarnation of the band, but Even Less is an indispensible favorite from Stupid Dream.

Porcupine Tree has always evolved subtly from one album to the next, so from album to album, the band's progression seems logical.  Over a larger arc, however, the band's beginnings hardly seem to match their most current work.  Following their evolution from a psychedelic studio project to a performing group with a profound influence on contemporary progressive rock is the most rewarding way to experience their oeuvre, in my opinion, and these albums are compelling places to start.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Album of the Year: "Helplessness Blues" and Parenthood

Although I have always been open to parenthood, for the majority of my adult life I have experienced pretty significant anxiety about the reality of being a parent.  For the past couple of years, however, undoubtedly influenced by my impending 40th birthday, I increasingly felt the desire to don that mantle.  So, when, a little over a year ago, in the parking lot of a Starbucks, my wife handed me a container of Sunny Bears with “For new Dads only” scrawled across the top in Sharpie marker, I found that there was actually very little fear.  There was, I think, the nervousness that often comes with the unknown, but overall, accepting that container of candies felt quite natural.

Within a few months, my wife and I were sharing the seemingly endless succession of awkward moments that arise in birthing classes. Although these classes are meant to prepare new parents for what is to come, they do not do much to relieve apprehensions. After several hours of video footage that very directly addressed the realities of natural child birth, the tension of the class was palpable. As usual, my mind often drifted into song as a coping mechanism, and repeatedly, it was these lyrics that came up: 

So now I am older,
Than my mother and father,
When they had their daughter,
Now what does that say about me?

Oh how could I dream of,
Such a selfless and true love?
Could I wash my hands of
Just looking out for me?

Oh man what I used to be
Oh man oh my oh me

This is the opening lines to my album of the year, the Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues. The track, Montezuma, is a rumination on a lonely life as it ponders its end.

The song asks questions that strongly resonated with me. My parents were a little over half my current age when I came into their lives, and I was old enough to clearly remember when my father turned 40.  My daughter will never know how I was in my 20s and 30s.  This divergence from my parent's path was generated in a very egocentric worldview that, up until about three years ago, was so deeply embedded in my everyday existence that it was impossible for me to see.  In fact, if you knew me during or before that time, I probably owe you an apology for some reason or another whether you know it or not.  I was, in short, not the best version of me.  If not for making some serious life changes, I would most likely still be in that place, and I probably would not be looking forward to fatherhood with the same kind of joyful anticipation that I enjoyed earlier this year.

Although Montezuma as a whole does not directly map onto my experience, the song’s overall message is open-ended enough to shed light on an introspective dialogue that was familiar to me this year.  Throughout Helplessness Blues, lead songsmith Robin Pecknold pens lyrics that are perhaps enlightened, but not enlightened in the transcendental sense. Instead, they examine a mythical realism grounded in the everyday, and are crafted to ask more questions than suggest answers.  As a result, the album's haunting qualities have a benevolent overtone, as if the spirits brought wisdom, comfort and insight rather than fear and distress.

Despite all of the competition, Helplessness Blues ended up being my album of the year, not just because it is full of amazing songs and exquisite musicianship (although it is), but because many of those songs opened up powerful moments of reflection like this one. In 2011, this sort of self-examination was both humbling and gratifying. I am very thankful for the birth of my daughter, and am grateful that I am in a place where I can appreciate the mindblowing reality of her existence.

Dr. Spin's Top Ten Albums of 2011

Photo Credit: Kate Wurtzel
Here’s a recipe for misery: return to a fitness regimen with two days of intense workouts and then, on the third day, get the flu. The combination of muscle soreness and feverish aches is exquisite, to say the least. As soon as it became obvious that I was sick, my wife and I agreed that she and the Little One should go to the family’s house early for the holiday festivities to avoid contagion. They took off like a shot (not that I blame them), leaving me in the house alone for two days. Thank God for streaming Netflix.

Well, sort of. After a few movies, I thought a larger narrative arc might be in order.  Watching a series run would kill more time while my body fought off whatever it was I had.  I settled on the fantastically acted Breaking Bad, which, despite being excellent, might not have been the best way to combat the isolation of my pre-holiday quarantine. It’s dark premise (a chemistry teacher starts cooking meth to pay for his cancer treatments) wasn't particularly uplifting, especially in a single 48-hour marathon viewing. By season three, I was a probably a little depressed, and certainly drained of any potential holiday cheer. Physically, though, I felt much better by its end, and I eagerly anticipated the upcoming celebrations with my newly-expanded family for the holidays.

Now, the Little One is asleep, by belly's full of tamales, the Doctor is chillin' with baby Jesus, and I am finalizing the blog’s 2011”best-of” list with a good feeling. This is concluding last month’s post, where I also provided the parameters for selection. The list isn’t limited by style or label or release date – they merely need to be outstanding albums that I came to appreciate in 2011. Most of them have previous, more in-depth posts that are linked to the artist's names below. Have at thee…….

Two Weeks by Grizzly Bear on Grooveshark
10. Grizzly Bear Veckatimest: The clincher with Grizzly Bear was when I discovered that their psychedelic pop wasn’t just the product of studio manufacture. Their album actually captures the potential of their live persona quite well, especially in the vocal department.

The Hunter by Mastodon on Grooveshark
9. MastodonThe Hunter: Whatever it is that pushes Mastodon to work outside of the box, it’s got them on the right track. Despite my initial apprehensions, The Hunter re-lit my torch for deeply musical hard rock.

Wot's... Uh The Deal by Joanot Martorell on Grooveshark
8. Pink Floyd - Obscured by Clouds: The Pink Floyd train that I chased for the majority of the fall began with Obscured by Clouds. It’s an interesting, and possibly very good, glimpse of the band ironing out their last kinks before what would be their golden period.

Moanin' by Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers on Grooveshark
7. Art Blakey & the Jazz MessengersMoanin’: The tunes are excellent on Moanin’, but it’s the trumpet playing of Lee Morgan that commands my attention throughout the album. The other soloists, as incredible as they are in their own right, often play off of his bravado.

I Never Learnt To Share by James Blake on Grooveshark
6. James Blake - James Blake: As a listening experience, Blake’s full-length debut teeters on the thin border between serenity and distress. It’s a stirring 21st century head-trip that absolutely must be experienced in a quiet, hi-fi setting.

Uffe's Workshop by Tyondai Braxton on Grooveshark
5. Tyondai BraxtonCentral Market: The question still hangs in the air: “Who is Zappa’s logical successor?” This incredible album from the former Battles member is at least a part of the answer to that difficult and complex question.

Gangsta by tUnE-yArDs on Grooveshark
4. the tUnE yArDsW H O K I L L: Merrill Garbus’ sophomore full-length release is a triumph that, on paper, shouldn’t work. Regardless, it’s quirky, angular, and often dissonant world-funk is held together by a sly grin, some clever looping, and the strength of Garbus’ vision.

As I Lay My Head Down by Other Lives on Grooveshark
3. Other LivesTamer Animals: This unbelievable release came out of nowhere, and I am surprised that I have not seen it on more end-of-year lists. If you miss the neo-romanticism of the Moody Blues (without all of the excess and bombast), this should be in your playlists.

Codex by Radiohead on Grooveshark
2. RadioheadThe King of Limbs: What many critics have called their most challenging album in years is also, I think, one of their best. This textured and (dare I say) sexy album never fails to throw out new levels of depth.

Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes on Grooveshark
1. Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues: For me, The Fleet Foxes seem to provide the soundtrack for major life changes. Helplessness Blues continued this tradition, grounding me during a year whose beginning bore very little resemblance to its end.

Thanks to everyone that has followed the blog this year, especially those who shared it or made listening recommendations.  I hope that I have had the good fortune to return the favor by introducing you to something new. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

"Hurry Up, We're Dreaming:" M83's Perfect Nostalgia

Music is often described as “dreamlike,” a description that points to music’s capacity as a medium to re-imagine and perceive reality in alternative ways. Conceptually, M83’s most current release Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a grandiose exploration of dreaming's elusive nature, so it seems a little too easy to resort to this tried-and true description.

But when M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzalez dreams, he dreams the dreams of Donnie Darko. Awash in synth and reverb, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming turns the pop conventions of the past into a distinctly 21st century psychedelia, in which the saxophone is somehow more epic than the guitar and the arena is more intimate than the club. If nostalgia had its own melody, played on a complex instrument of sight and sound, M83’s recreation of idealized 80s teen angst would be a virtuosic symphony. 

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, however, isn’t really an 80s rehash - certainly less so than its 2008 predecessor Saturdays=Youth. It’s far too expansive and bold to be authentically of that era. However, like Pink Floyd and Sigur Ros, M83 ‘s music harbors the capacity to suggest that there is a more subtle narrative hidden within its distinctive atmospheres. The melodic and structural shape of M83’s compositions infuse the simple, everyday task of driving down the highway at sunset with a vivid, romantic emotionalism that is, predictably, difficult to verbalize.

Steve McQueen by M83 on Grooveshark

The album’s nostalgia influences its physical shape, as well. The CD is printed as a double album, a notoriously difficult format that has no real meaning in our evolving "media cloud" culture. Gonzalez, however, intends for the listener to listen to Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming as a whole experience, rather than consumed in a shuffled playlist. The album has several instrumental viginettes that connect its more anthemic "singles," and this connective tissue might seem like filler when taken out of context. Within the framework of the album, however, they create narrative depth and unity that connects Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming with the concept album tradition. If there were a more direct segues between tracks, this trait would be even more noticeable.

Nostalgia, in and of itself, is not a negative phenomenon, but it can be limiting. Music is often a trigger for memories that are linked to a particular moment in time, which are the fuels that fire nostalgia.  As much as music cultivates these fond recollections, their idealized reconstruction can obscure the potential of the present.  This is when people get in a musical "rut," listening to the same old stuff.  M83 intentionally travels through the present to the past. Whether the 80s succeeded in predicting the future or nostalgia caused this prophecy to be self-fulfilling is probably less important than the overall success of Hurry Up, We're Dreaming in bridging this gap.  I also predict that the album will reveal deeper musical layers as the months and years imbue it with its own nostalgic value.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Russian Christmas Music:" A Requiem

About a week and a half ago, a student from the middle school where I teach band was the victim of a homicide. The entire campus was shaken to its foundation as we grappled with the loss and its meaning. Although he was not currently enrolled in my program, he was in my beginning brass class last year, so I knew him pretty well. In my teaching career, I have lost students before in wars and car accidents, but the intentional nature of this one made it different. In situations like this, teachers are in the unique and often difficult position of sorting through feelings in real-time front of students.

He had the most direct relationships with the students in my upper-level group. When they came in for rehearsal, the mood was somber and mournful, to say the least. Many students were openly weeping while others despondently looked on. Despite the emotional tone of the room, I thought it would be most therapeutic, for me as well as them, if we went ahead and played. We were in the midst of preparing for our holiday program, though, and the joyful intent behind the majority of our music seemed incongruous with the solemn feelings that we were all working though.

We were, however, working up Michael Story’s new arrangement of Alfred Reed’s Russian Christmas Music for our upcoming performances. This is a beautiful, haunting piece that, in addition to being important band literature, provided a vehicle for all of us to express what was going on inside without resorting to the clumsy inaccuracies of language.

This video is of the original, full version of Russian Christmas Music, not Story’s arrangement. His version is quite good for younger players, though. It captures a lot of the original and carefully edits the sections that require a more mature musicianship than is usually found in middle school. If you are in the market for such specialized things, I recommend it.

I talked relatively little during this class, and when I did I found myself emphasizing musicality and mood over correct notes and sound quality. I wanted to capture something of the emotional tumult that we all were feeling and inject it into the aspects of this incredible piece that lie beyond the black dots on the page.  When the period was over, it was not as if everyone was “cheered up,” but students seemed to have regained their composure. Those formerly sobbing had stopped, and conversations between students seemed less uncomfortable. The feeling of the group had transformed over the course of that 45 minute period. I can’t speak for all of the students, but I felt a bit better.

Since then, at all of our holiday performances, I have dedicated Russian Christmas Music to the memory of this student, and many of these performances have been incredible.   Perhaps seizing the opportunity to take a dreadful, disastrous act and turn it into something meaningful and positive for the students was worthwhile.  The piece also took on a new meaning for me, as well.  I doubt that I will ever have an experience with the song again that will not bring that student back to my mind.

One final note: This is my 100th entry in the blog.  Perhaps a little different than normal, which seems appropriate.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Gorillaz, Germany, and an Awkward Swim

In the summer of 2001, I took a trip to Germany with my family. I had it in my mind that I wanted to represent the better parts of American culture during my upcoming travels around Europe, but on our first night there, in Frankfurt, I still could not quite get over the fact that I had shared my hotel swimming pool with a pair of skinny-dipping strangers. After a quick (but thorough) shower, I sat down on the bed and turned on the TV, and predictably, most of it was incomprehensible. Of course, MTV Europe ended up being a source of entertainment, and I found myself particularly mesmerized by this:

The animated deadpan delivery of that irresistible chorus by 2D (as voiced by Damon Albarn) immediately hooked me. Its dry, restrained intellect seemed to unapologetically announce that I was definitely not in Kansas. Clint Eastwood was climbing the charts throughout Europe at the time, but it wouldn’t get any airplay in the US for several months. Before I left Europe, I had a copy of their first self-titled album in hand.

The album was, unfortunately, disappointing as a whole experience. It had a few pretty good songs, none of which were nearly as engaging as Clint Eastwood, and several rambling instrumentals. Many of the Gorillaz’s fans praise the album’s eclectic nature, but I think that there is a difference between an album that can’t decide what it wants to be and another when it fights with itself over its identity. For several years, I lost my copy of Gorillaz, but eventually I replaced it with an inexpensive used copy that I keep around for nostalgic purposes.

I re-listened to Gorillaz this weekend on the road, and overall, I can’t say as my opinion has changed dramatically. Aside from the genius that is Clint Eastwood, several of the songs are quite a bit better than I remember, but I think that the album would do extremely well with some editing and a shorter run time. It shows flashes of brilliance, but it doesn’t sustain them. This larger dynamic can be seen on a smaller scale on the track M1A1.

M1 A1 by Gorillaz on Grooveshark

I absolutely love the isolated feeling of the opening, especially as that call is subtly detuned to match the steadily building chords. When 2D enters with his dispassionate whining, however, it sinks the potential of all the tension built throughout the entire track. The song just doesn’t quite deliver on its initial promise, which is how I feel about the whole album.

There has been a recent release of a Gorillaz Greatest Hits album, which is what reignited my interest in the band. I am rarely a proponent of these compilations, but in the case of the Gorillaz, I might be willing to make an exception. On this first album, the Gorillaz have some amazing moments, but its inconsistency, whether intentional or accidental, made me lose interest in following them in the long-term.

As an aside, there was another big hit in Germany at the time that I clearly remember from that first evening with MTV Europe.

This song did not make it internationally for obvious reasons, so I’m not sure what happened to Seeed. Still, its slippery groove and raspy vocals pay an interesting tribute to the dancehall styles that were all the rage in the late 90s and early 00s.