Seasons

The only album released in Arthur Russell’s lifetime, 1986’s “World of Echo”, is a staggering, ethereal masterpiece. It’s a look at a wildly underrated artist, almost unknown during the time he lived, creating something so overwhelmingly breathtaking that it is hard to believe it is real.

It’s a record that relies heavily on effected cello and Russell’s paper-thin voice. The result is something that cannot accurately be described by words – you really have to hear it to capture it’s breadth. The results feel nearly elemental – somehow lighter than air but dealing with emotions so much deeper – almost dense. You cannot help but feel totally devastated by the listening experience.

Russell died in 1992 of AIDS. There’s not much footage of him performing outside of these clips. In the intervening years, material has trickled out in one way or another through compliations of his recordings or songs he produced. Lots of it is fractious, with occasional highlights coming to the surface. None of it quite feels like “World of Echo”, a work that for some reason feels strangely spiritual.

Perhaps it is the fact that there’s so little about Arthur Russell available that clips like these are so tremendous. It’s like a fresh blanket of snow. You know what will happen eventually – it’ll melt and evaporate into the air, but damn if it didn’t look pretty for a minute.

“World of Echo” is that last little bit that refuses to melt – a reminder of what happened before the seasons change and it just becomes another memory.

On Pablo, Kanye’s State is Cause for Concern

Kanye West – “The Life of Pablo”

pabloKanye West has proven peerless in the hip-hop world. No one can quite do what he can in terms of his creative process. Take any two albums in his catalog – the plastic pop-rap of “Graduation” that dives headfirst into remote, cold AutoTune territory of “808’s and Heartbreak,” or the grandeur and maximalism of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” to the mechanical grind of “Yeezus”. The left turns are so sharp, so staggering, that any time he’s put out a record we debate endlessly about the merits of his work in contrast to the difficult public persona he’s fashioned over the last decade. For as messy as his personal relationships and personal life seem to be, his records have always been infused with a brilliant cohesion – perfectly crafted, no loose threads. Always a statement.

Until now.

West’s new record, the long-gestating “The Life of Pablo,” was finally released over the weekend after several starts-and-stops, a laundry list of album title changes and diluted by West’s penchant for making headlines for every seemingly ill-advised move. It still staggers, but for a different reason. It’s fractured and often gorgeous, but feels like there’s something deeply alarming, the work of someone that may not quite have command of their mind.

There are GREAT moments on the record, no doubt – the opener “Ultralight Beam” with its gospel choir and brilliant spot by Chance The Rapper, the synthy sweep of “Waves,” and that perfect understated Arthur Russell sample which provides the backbone of “30 Hours”. Some of these without question are Kanye’s best work, but for those, there’s moments where Kanye raps about himself in an acapella track titled, of course, “I Love Kanye”, or the audio-equivalent of a Pollock splatter with “Freestyle 4” with an ominous string sample. With that dichotomy, you can’t help feel like he’s losing the plot a little, and there are moments – like where he talks about being off Lexapro – make the case he’s suffering mental illness.

Perhaps that’s the case. Much of “Pablo” seems to come from a specific type of mania. Moments that masquerade as lucid and in full color, just might be elaborately constructed delusions. The best stuff is euphoric, but the experiments that fail are scary and cause definite concern. Like it or not, West is one of the most – if not the most – vital artists of our time. Hardly anyone with his reach attempts to bridge the gap between art and popular culture, and some may argue he’s the last true titan standing. He ignites the collective consciousness, for better or worse, and that’s important. Here’s hoping that he finds a path to what likely ails him.

But for now, we have “The Life of Pablo”. It’s like a Polaroid developing. Slowly coming into focus, second by second, minute by minute, creating a whole, but never quite crisp, clear and with the depth you’d get from another kind of camera. What finally appears is sort of hazy and dreamlike, telling a story far different than the one captured when the shutter closed.

Favorite Songs of 2015 (And Other Stuff)

In no particular order after “Maggie”. Enjoy as a Spotify playlist this year!

“Pedestrian At Best” – Courtney Barnett
“Maggie, I’ve Been Searching For Our Son” – Craig Finn
“Need You” – Royal Headache
“Depreston” – Courtney Barnett
“Hard Luck Kid” – Beach Slang
“No Cities To Love” – Sleater-Kinney
“Gimme Love” – Sleater-Kinney
“SeeSaw” ft. Romy by Jamie xx
“Loud Places” ft. Romy by Jamie xx
I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” – Jamie xx, Young Thug, Popcaan
“Where Do I Begin” – Wilco
“Taste The Ceiling” – Wilco
“The Knock” – Hop Along
“Powerful Man” – Hop Along
“No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross” – Sufjan Stevens
“Should Have Known Better” – Sufjan Stevens
“Alright” – Kendrick Lamar
“The Blacker The Berry” – Kendrick Lamar
“The Magic Morning/Lookalike/I Lost My Mind (DJ)/Mr. E. Mann/Fired Up/Dimed Out” – Titus Andronicus
“I Love You Honeybear” – Father John Misty
“True Affection” – Father John Misty
“Can’t Feel My Face” – The Weeknd
“Want To Want Me” – Jason Derulo
“Speed Trap Town” – Jason Isbell
“24 Frames” – Jason Isbell
“Return To The Moon (Political Song for Didi Bloome to Sing, with Cresendo)” – EL VY
“I Can’t Control Myself” – Strange Names
“I Don’t like Who I Was Then” – The Wonder Years
“January 10th, 2014” – The World Is A Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die
“Flesh Without Blood” – Grimes
“Realiti” – Grimes
“Warm Blood” – Carly Rae Jepsen
“Living My Life” – Deerhunter
“Snakeskin” – Deerhunter
“Got To Work It Out – Original Mix” – Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique
“Hotline Bling” – Drake
“Style” – Ryan Adams
“Baby Don’t You Want Me” – Lucero
“Desire” – Dilly Dally
“Norf Norf” by Vince Staples
“Copper Canteen” – James McMurtry
“Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas” – Beach Slang
“Big Decisions” – My Morning Jacket
“Lay It All On Me (ft Ed Sheeran) – Rudimental
“Cool For The Summer” – Demi Lovato
“What Do You Mean?” – Justin Bieber
“Shock Me” – Baroness
“Mutineer” – Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires
“Making The Most Of The Night” – Carly Rae Jepsen
“All You Had To Do Was Stay” – Ryan Adams
“The Yabba” – Battles
“I Can’t Lose” – Mark Ronson & Keyone Starr
“Sunday Candy” – Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” – The Mountain Goats
“Foreign Object” – The Mountain Goats
“Newmyer’s Roof” – Craig Finn
“You, In Weird Cities” – Jeff Rosenstock

Honorable Mentions:
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Theme Song” and “Peeno Noir”

Favorite Non-2014 Discovery:
“Nothing Feels Good” by The Promise Ring

Honorable Mention Albums:
“I Love You, Honeybear” by Father John Misty
“The Waterfall” by My Morning Jacket
“Summertime ’06” by Vince Staples
“Complicated Game” by James McMurtry
“All A Man Should Do” by Lucero
“Art Angels” by Grimes

Top 10 Favorite Albums of 2015

1. Jamie xx – In Colour

2. Beach Slang – The Things We Do To Find People Like Us

In any year but this one, Beach Slang’s aim-for-the-stars would be a no-brainer for number one in my list. But this has not been just any year, and that’s why it’s firmly entrenched in the two spot.

There’s something to be said about this type of rock and roll. Heart-on-your-sleeve, confessional, young, fucked up. The Hold Steady have done it for years with a decidedly Catholic bent, and Japandroids purified that form most recently with 2012’s Celebration Rock, but there really hasn’t been a band game enough to take that mantle until Beach Slang.

James Alex and company blister through 27 minutes of songs that are simply worth hearing. “Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas” synthesizes the most Westerberg-ian of vocal performances and pairs them with chunkier riffs and splashier drums. “The night is alive/it’s loud and I’m drunk” on “Noisy Heaven”, and “Hard Luck Kid” and “Dirty Lights” may be the best one-two album closer of the year. Or any recent year, for that matter.

3. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

It takes a lot of effort to make a great record sound effortless, but when it comes to Courtney Barnett, I want to believe that her debut released this March simply came in an afternoon.

Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is likely this year’s purest example of a perfect debut – two rockers up front – “Elevator Operator” and this year’s song-of-the-year “Pedestrian At Best”, a rager that sometime soon will take up whatever iteration of “Guitar Hero” the kids play down the road. The crunchy jag of that opening riff and the soaring chorus has a stadium-ready energy that will keep it long past the life of its performer.

“Depreston” is a simple, jangly ballad that makes me think about on the the precipice of true adulthood, what’s felt like an infinite, distant horizon of negotiating what it truly means to be on your own away from what’s familiar and easy, thinking about the time of trading your sneakers and hoodies for blazers and dress shoes on a daily basis.

There’s so much on this album to like, from the rave-ups of “Aqua Profunda!” to the nightmare fuel of “Kim’s Caravan”. Barnett pulls you into her world with the slightest of ease, so much so that you forget you’re in the middle of it all.

4. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

The confidence of the material on the first Sleater-Kinney album in almost ten years should come as no surprise; just listen to any of their albums. A casual listener with working knowledge of their catalog will be able to tell just what song is from each record. The sonic differences are that apparent on each release.

After the Zeppelin overtones found on 2005’s The Woods, S-K comes back with something more focused and compact than that record, but sacrificing none of the sheer power that comes when these performers get together. No Cities To Love cuts no corners – all the songs here stand up to the band’s previous work. Lead single “Bury Our Friends” with it’s irrepressible gallop and cyclical riffage is a perfect example, as does the wiry “A New Wave”. The title track noodles about with an unforgettable chorus and “Gimme Love” shows the white-hot, thermonuclear power of Corin Tucker’s vocals. It’s everything you could want from a Sleater-Kinney record, but in typical fashion, never what you’d expect. That’s perfect.

5. Craig Finn – Faith In The Future

It would be disingenuous to write about this record without directly editorializing, so I’ll put it this way. With The Hold Steady existing in somewhat of a grey area, Faith In The Future, like Finn’s band, seems to center on uncertainty of all things. Life, death, people in transition, problems left unsolved or what’s to come after we leave this world.

For myself personally, this record has transformed many times over since I first heard it. From at first what sounded like a hearty sonic departure from Finn’s 2012 debut, Clear Heart Full Eyes, it’s turned into a record that encapsulates my deepest sympathies. If In Colour is the sound of my year, Faith In The Future are the words.

6. Wilco – Star Wars

Star Wars, the free surprise release album from Wilco is the band’s best record since 2007’s meditative Sky Blue Sky, and certainly their most noisy and unconventional since A Ghost Is Born. What’s great about Star Wars is that it’s the sound of a band reshuffling the deck for the first time in a while.

It’s a jumble of guitars that pan left and right, riffs that stick like glue, disarming tempo changes and staggering brevity. Clocking in only at 34 minutes, it’s almost tantalizing in how short it is. Just when it feels safe to peg this band with a certain sound, this album comes from out of nowhere. That claim doesn’t feel that safe to say anymore.

7. Hop Along – Painted Shut

The second album by Hop Along is a perfect showcase for singer Frances Quinlan, all in her dexterous-voiced glory, bending, pushing, pulling in all directions. It’s a true marvel, backed with punky, propulsive guitars that careen around her rough edges. Opener “The Knock” and the chunky “Powerful Man” are perfect examples of it. Painted Shut is something truly special and shows a band on the edge of something really great.

8. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Through Sufjan’s long and varied catalogue, there’s a wild amount of material that is designed to challenge his listeners – from the meditative Seven Swans the complexities of Illinois and the freakiness of The Age of Adz. That’s really just the cliff notes version of some of the stuff he does.

Anyway, as a slightly-more-than-casual listener, I don’t think there’s anything that quite touches the barren-soul nature of Carrie & Lowell. It’s a portrait of the artist at 40, drawing heavily on the theme of loss. Every track on this eleven-song collection is purposeful and finely tuned to break your heart. Just listen to “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” and try to come out of it unaffected. You won’t.

9. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

To Pimp A Butterfly is a bit of a confounding listen, a record without a true access point, which, in a way, is part of its charm. The follow up to 2012’s perfect good kid, m.A.A.d. city doesn’t feel of this world. There’s an alarming amount of music on this release in conjunction with Kendrick’s rhymes. It’s an unbelievably dense piece of work that demands your attention with listen after listen.

It’s an album that makes you want to work for its message. As with any of his releases, Kendrick feels steps ahead of his time. I don’t feel the impact of this one has truly been felt yet, as we’re all still experiencing the aftershocks. Check back with me when the next Star Wars movie comes out. Until then, we’re gonna be alright.

10. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy

A 93-minute, 29 rock opera about manic depression. Mammoth, moving and hits all the right notes. I don’t think there’s much else to say other than it may be the finest example of a concept seen through from beginning to end – and actually delivering. It rocks, it hurts, it’s everything in between. Just listen to it.

Live at Winterland – Live Forever

I stood outside of Lee’s Palace on a rainy Toronto night in September 2009 chatting with a stranger waiting in line for the same show I was, discussing Bruce Springsteen. I’d mentioned to him I’d seen him and the E Street Band before and then he started talking about the shows he’d seen and how he collected bootlegs. He mentioned that the “Live at Winterland” show from December 15, 1978 was one of the best. Given how these conversations usually go when you steer into bootleg territory, I kind of though little of it until he contacted me with a link to the set a few days later.

The truth is, it’s fantastic. Particularly this version of “Prove it All Night”, with over an eleven-minute running time that annihilates the studio version found on “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. That’s for so many reasons – the cinematic piano, the otherworldliness of Clarence Clemons’s saxophone bookended by THOSE savage guitar solos and Bruce’s fervid vocal. Unbelievable.

This performance – this band – that tour – is a snapshot of a group running white hot after spending years on the road together with the power to transform a great song into something absolutely transcendent. Yes, it’s long, but you won’t want it to end.

On new album, The Hold Steady bare their “Teeth”

The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams (Positive Jams/Washington Square)

Teeth Dreams Album CoverI thought about how to best collect my thoughts on Teeth Dreams, the sixth album by The Hold Steady, for several weeks after I first heard it. I’m intrinsically tied to the band in more ways than I can articulate, so giving anything less than my feelings surrounding this release would feel totally inauthentic. It’s probably best to start with some context.

Heaven is Whenever was the sound of transition. A lot was happening with the band in 2010. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay had left, taking with him the barroom drama that permeated their first four records. Sonically, they took many chances with instrumentation and production that took the focus away from the trademark guitar element and focused more on atmospherics. The result was admirable, but came away feeling a lot less like a Hold Steady record than anything that preceded it. Less celebration, more darkness. The scene seemed a little less sunny.

That wasn’t the only change. The album’s first tour showed the band trying out a six-piece three-guitar, bass and keys lineup. It didn’t quite gel as much as it powered through each show with sheer force. By winter, they’d pared down to a five-piece. Steve Selvidge was installed as a full time member, bringing with him guitar texturization and muscle that wasn’t present with Tad Kubler and Craig Finn’s previous interplay. Just like that, the band pivoted from ‘bar band’ to ‘guitar band’.

You wouldn’t have picked up on the change if you didn’t see them live in the interim. For many, Heaven felt like an abdication, going from one knockout record after another to something that felt less full and more like it was compensating for a missing element. Perhaps that was the case, but it could also be said it was also the product of trying to do too much in too little time in the face of major change.

But here we are four years later with Teeth Dreams. To put how long that is into context: in that time, their contemporaries Guided By Voices got back together and released five new albums while singer Robert Pollard put out SEVEN of his own. Sure, it’s an extreme example, but it’s not entirely far off. These guys made their name trying to keep up with Uncle Bob in more ways than one at some point in their career.

The album begins with the propulsive rocker, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”, which quickly gives way to the shimmering “Spinners”. Here Finn sings “Heartbreak hurts, but you can dance it off,” Full of bright guitars and a propane-fueled solo, it’s the closest thing The Hold Steady has ever written as a crossover hit.

Next up is “The Only Thing”, a slice of jangle pop infused with organ by studio musician Al Gamble that’s both a wink to their past as well as a distillation of present. It’s a dexterous move by the band, a song only accomplished by a few years away from recording, and in turn it is one of the album’s best.

Speaking of highlights, “On With The Business” comes at the album’s midpoint. Here, Finn reaches “maximum Craig”, spitting a dizzying array of lyrics (“Blood on the carpet/mud on the mattress/waking up with that American sadness”) over anxious guitars, building towards a vocal delay bit that replicates his lyrical repetition off mic at their live show. Finally, it segues into an absolutely face-melting guitar solo.

The Hold Steady in 2014Overall, the album showcases another layer of depth that was not apparent in previous Hold Steady recordings. This is for a few reasons. Producer Nick Raskulinecz, who admittedly did not know much about the band prior to recording, seemed to instinctively know how to handle the band’s lineup and play best to their strengths. The guitar duo of Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge provide stunning guitar textures, while bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake (who has never sounded better) re-establish themselves as one of rock’s best rhythm sections.

While this collection of songs mostly focuses on loud, immediate rock and roll, the emotional one-two punch of “Almost Everything” and album closer “Oaks” cannot be understated. “Almost Everything” is a quiet ballad that is a sonic cousin with earlier songs like “First Night” and “Lord I’m Discouraged”. While it doesn’t crest quite like those songs, it’s just as beautiful.

There is nothing The Hold Steady has ever created like “Oaks”. Clocking in at over nine minutes, it’s a sprawling masterwork that kneads and twists through peaks and valleys, with Finn conjuring dreamlike images as the song turns the corner with a gorgeous melodic solo carrying the song through its final minutes. Kubler stated that at one point he felt that this would be the last record he’d make with Finn. If this were goodbye, it’s a hell of a way to go. While there has always been sentimentality in Hold Steady songs, this one feels like it has real stakes. It’s just heavier.

For a band that looked like they may not make another record, Teeth Dreams is an album that pulls off an impressive magic trick. It’s a return to form for a group that looked like they lost their way, while alternately showcasing who they are now. Ultimately, it’s a portrait of a band that has the gift of hindsight and the confidence to make changes when they’re most critical. We benefit from it, and they’re better for it.