Staff Picks: Music
Music lovers first heard John Grant’s amazing voice when he fronted the Denver-based band The Czars. The Czars were signed to the Bella Union label and released several critically acclaimed records throughout the late nineties and early 2000’s. Grant has now gone solo and released The Queen of Denmark, an album which received Mojo Magazine’s album of 2010 award. Fans of The Red House Painters, early Elton John, and 1970’s soft rock will enjoy Grant’s bathetic musings and one of a kind baritone.
Queen of Denmark
I was not terribly impressed with the musical output from 2009, but after compiling my Top Ten CDs from 2010 I discovered a bunch more that were better than most of last year’s list.
Since I could only offer ten selections for the official KPL Top Ten page, I present ten more great CDs from the past twelve months.
11. Lady Killer by Cee Lo Green
12. Body Talk Pts. 1 & 2 by Robyn
13. Adrift by The Red Sea Pedestrians
14. Majesty Shredding by Superchunk
15. Of The Blue Colour of the Sky by OK Go
16. The Guitar Song by Jamey Johnson
17. Transference by Spoon
18. I Learned the Hard Way by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
19. Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine by Various
20. Maya by M.I.A.
It took two tries, but I’m hooked on the music of the Fruit Bats on their cd The Ruminant Band. I hear touches of Neil Young and country rock “Waiting on a Friend” era Rolling Stones accompanied by a prog rock-voiced lead singer.
I was thinking that I should mention something about what the songs are about, but I realize I have no idea. I mostly listen to music while I’m doing something else so it’s the music that affects me more than the words.
Check it out, maybe twice. It grows on you.
Fruit Bats “The Ruminant Band”
As a senior in high school I heard a cover of Madonna ’s “Like A Prayer” by the singer John Wesley Harding and was immediately hooked by his version of folk, or as he sometimes calls it “gangsta folk.” I immediately dived into Harding’s catalog and discovered a plethora of brilliant songs that were intelligent, witty, tender, historical and sardonic. In college, I was fortunate to see him live and experienced not just a concert, but what felt like a dialogue between Harding and me. I scraped up the money to purchase a concert shirt (I still have it) and that summer my future wife approached me while I was wearing it because she was also a fan.
Throughout the years I have traced the path of who I consider one of the most underrated musicians of the past 20 years. I have read the two fabulous novels he has written under his real name, Wesley Stace, and purchased every new CD. Imagine my surprise when he agreed to participate in our long running concert series and speak about his books the following night.
I encourage you to come to hear Wes speak about his music and books on February 17 and 18 . You will discover an extremely talented musician who has shared the stage with such greats as Bruce Springsteen and has been praised by literary critics for his writing. Space is limited at both FREE events, so come early.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
The Malian duo Amadou & Mariam have been in nearly constant rotation on my ipod and home stereo since I became aware of their music with the 2005 release of Dimanche a Bamako. I knew little of the couple’s inspiring story then, but responded immediately to the music they create. Singer Mariam Doumbia and guitarist/vocalist Amadou Bagayokothan, who are both blind, met at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capital of Mali, 30 years ago and have been making amazing and infectious music ever since. Already huge stars in West Africa and Europe; in recent years Amadou & Mariam have gained a large following in the indie rock world where they have become a show stealing staple at large festivals, which has helped spread their popularity across the glode. The duo’s latest title, Welcome to Mali, has received almost universal, and I would say very well deserved, critical acclaim and I can't stop listening to it. Even without the faintest clue as to what the lyrics of the songs are saying (the couple sings primarily in French), it is easy to hear why the global spread of Amadou & Mariam's hypnotic sound cannot be stopped.
Welcome to Mali
The other day while listening to online radio at last.fm, I heard the sweet voice of Jazmine Sullivan singing to a funky, rhythmic beat. I was tapping my foot before my brain engaged with what the lyrics actually were: "I bust the windows out your car..." I then had to laugh that a song so fun and upbeat to listen to was about getting even with a cheating boyfriend.
Then, I remembered a song I heard on a country radio station by Carrie Underwood called "Before He Cheats" (on her album Some Hearts). That one is all about knives and ball bats intended to help men stop their cheating ways! So, it seems this topic is universal enough that it spans genres of music from country to rhythm and blues.
(By the way, each of our branch libraries has a different collection of music. I found Sullivan's Fearless CD at our Eastwood Branch. Our online catalog has a special link for searching music selections. Go to the catalog then select "Music Search" on the black navigation bar near the top.)
Andrew Bird’s music is in many ways unremarkable, in the sense that he like so many other musicians working today, crafts quirky, folk-pop with lyrics that strike you as urbane and literary. What differentiates Bird’s sundry brand of high-indie folk within this excessively saturated genre, packed full of overhyped, one-dimensional signer songwriters, stems from his classical music training, specifically his employment of the violin and other non-traditional rock and roll instrumentation (whistling and glockenspiel e.g.). Such an eclectic background provides Bird’s music with so much more compositional depth and textural nuance than his contemporary peers. Sample some of Bird’s material in this video clip at Pitchfork Media. If you’re a fan, Bird is slated to play the Kalamazoo State Theater on October 18th.
Noble beast [sound recording]
Before well known groups like Wilco, Neko Case, Ryan Adams, and a bevy of other artists known for their fusing of folk, rock and country elements rose to popular attention in the late nineties, there was a band from Minnesota called The Jayhawks. Influenced by late sixties folk rock idols like The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, and Bob Dylan, Minneapolis-based The Jayhawks formed in 1985. Led by two primary songwriters, Mark Olson and Gary Louris, The Jayhawks are still considered a bit of a cult band that never achieved the kind of commercial success that the above mentioned musicians have enjoyed. If you enjoy the intersection of rock, roots music and infectious hooks, then check out the Jayhawks’ influential discography. Officially on hiatus, the band known for influencing the sound of Alternative Country continues to perform on occasion as well as working on studio projects.
Watch a clip of their performance on Austin City Limits.
Rainy Day Music
Dead at 26 of an overdose of prescription drugs, British singer songwriter Nick Drake left behind a small yet influential body of acoustic songs layered with subtle pop and jazz sensibilities. Developing a fragile brand of spare and plaintive folk songs during the late 1960’s, Drake’s three albums went almost entirely unnoticed until an automobile commercial reintroduced a new generation to Drake’s quietly evocative songs in 2000. Drake’s music serves as an antecedent to the melancholic musings of contemporary artists like Belle and Sebastian, Devendra Banhart, Elliott Smith, and Iron and Wine. Pink Moon, his most realized album serves as a haunting reminder of what may have been had the young singer survived his bout with depression.
Way to blue [sound recording] : an introduction to Nick Drake
While I don’t often listen to country music, there are a few artists walking the fine line between country and rock who pique my interest. Neko Case is one of those artists; her music is an alternative rock-country hybrid that appeals to fans of both genres. I highly recommend her new album Middle Cyclone. If you’re a fan, you may want to check her out live at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids on July 16th.