Staff Picks: Music
Books (mostly memoirs) about dysfunctional families—where abuse, neglect, alcoholism, abandonment or all of the above abound—are both plentiful and popular these days. The Liar’s Club (Mary Karr), Running with Scissors, A Wolf at the Table (Augusten Burroughs), The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls), to name just a few, have enjoyed commercial success and seem to strike a chord with the reading public.
Recently I’ve been listening to the work of front man for the band, Mountain Goats, songwriter-singer, John Darnielle, who is a master of the “themed CD.” In 2005, he recorded The Sunset Tree. Thirteen songs offer snapshots of his childhood which was dominated by an abusive step-father. Each song tells a story, and together the stories compose a wrenching portrait reminiscent of the memoirs cited above. To convey the horror and offer snippets of hope through song—so vividly, so convincingly, and so succinctly—should elevate this musician to the stature of famed memoirists who write rather than sing about this realm.
In 2006, Paste Magazine put John Darnielle on their best 100 living songwriters' list; makes sense to me.
The Sunset Tree
My first encounter with the American composer Philip Glass was several years ago and honestly, one of shock and awe. Clearly, at the time, I wasn’t ready for his brand of repetitive music structures strung together with an odd assortment of instrumentation and vocal textures. Now several years later, Glass’ eerily minimalist symphonies, hauntingly beautiful film scores (The Hours, Kundun, Fog of War), Eastern inflected rhythms, and evocative ensemble compositions have become some of my favorite classical tracks to listen to.
John Adams is another wonderful composer whose work I’ve recently embraced. His music is often thrown under the heading “minimalism” along with Glass and notable avant-garde musicians Stephen Reich and Terry Reily. Adams’ music, like Glass’ work, tends to generate its melodic color from alterations or subtle tweaking of a foundational harmony. Both deeply expressive and at times jarringly dark, Adams' music has been both widely honored and praised for its humanist themes and boundary-expanding nature.
The Dharma at Big Sur
Does any modern recording producer capture the deep, lush resonance of a plucked double bass any better than T-Bone Burnett? I don't think so. Though the list of artists he's produced is diverse, running the gamut from Cassandra Wilson to Counting Crows to the surprise duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, the sound of his productions is singular. While emphasizing acoustic instrumentation rooted in American folk traditions, his productions never sound like museum pieces - they're very much of their time (his influence on the Americana genre can't be overestimated), yet remain ageless.
Burnett can now add John Mellencamp's Life, Death, Love, and Freedom to his growing list of evocative production work. Co-produced with Mellencamp (no slouch as a producer himself), the album, described by JM as a collection of "modern electric folk songs", is the very best record made by a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee in the year in which they were inducted. The meditations on mortality and making ends meet in tough times are classic Mellencamp themes, but the intimacy with which the disc is recorded puts the listener in the middle of the songs - there's little question to which times this new masterpiece speaks. As long as you expect Mellencamp in a deeply ruminative mood, musically and lyrically, you'll find yourself listening to the very best disc he's ever made... so far.
Life, Death, Love, and Freedom
What goes into the making of a rock and roll masterpiece? Is it the quality of the songwriting or is it the result of a skillful lyricist plumbing the depths of humanity with wordplay, satire, irony, or poetic beauty? Maybe it was the perfect combination of all the various pieces of the band coming together just at the right moment. Could it have been the riffs, the screams, the cow bells, or even the artistic flirtation with expanding the musical envelope?
Classic albums live long after they are completed, resonating within our nostalgia-filled memories of long ago days and past lives. When done right, these classic records often become the soundtrack of a particular time period or evoke images of movements, trends, and other zeitgeist-related minutiae staining the dustbin of history like sonic residue. Continuum Books produces a fun series of album-specific monographs, penned by admirers and hagiographers aptly named Thirty Three and a Third. These pithy little books are pocket-sized and easily accessible for both neophyte and grizzled, music nerd alike.
In the aeroplane over the sea
As a Kinks fanatic, I was immediately drawn to the Kooks' sophomore release, Konk, upon seeing its cover, showing the band standing in the doorway of the Kinks' recording studio... named Konk, natch (where much of the disc was recorded).
While the UK quartet share a strong sense of melody and pop songcraft with their studio landlords, their tunes don't conjure up the quirky, busker-friendly sing-alongs of Village Green Preservation Society-era Kinks, nor the muscular, stadium-rock sound of One for the Road-era Kinks. Instead, the band's smooth vocal harmonies, moon-in-june lyrics, and Hills soundtrack-ready performance bring to mind contemporaries like Rooney - which isn't necessarily a bad thing. On a breezy summer's day, when you'd rather feel carefree than challenged, Konk might make a good musical companion.
We were privileged to host the Pacifica Quartet on July 8, in a concert and lecture made possible by Fontana Chamber Arts. The quartet's virtuosity and exuberant style thrilled the audience, which ranged in age from infants to elders. One patron remarked after: "Nothing beats a live performance." How true, and particularly so for chamber music which has been called the ultimate democracy. There's no conductor in a chamber ensemble, so all members must cooperate and collaborate. Each musician's contribution is unique. Each musician and his complete focus are needed throughout the piece. A live performance lets you appreciate this special relationship and the lively musical conversations that take place among the members.
Our next concert at KPL will be August 12 when we welcome singer songwriter Rachael Davis. Rachael's been singing on stage since the age of two. Among her accomplishments is taking grand prize in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival's Troubadour Contest.
A few years ago author David Levithan introduced me to the Swedish indie-pop musician Jens Lekman (pronounced "Yens") and since then I have been a BIG fan. Depending heavily on samples and strings, Lekman crafts whimsical and often hilarious lyrics about cab rides, cutting your finger off while slicing avocados, and playing Bingo on a Friday night. The newest CD, Night Falls Over Kortedala, is filled with perfect pop gems. Discover for yourself why he has been called a happier version of Morrissey!
Night Falls Over Kortedala
British Sea Power is a quartet from Brighton, England who have been compared to both Joy Division and Arcade Fire. What they have in common with the both bands is a moody and sweeping sound that is best listened to on full volume. Their most recent release Do You Like Rock Music? could be the soundtrack for a rousing invasion of a land in need of some uplifting. Check out these literate indie boys if you are in need of some musical theatrics.
Do You Like Rick Music?
One of the best concerts I attended last year was The Avett Brothers show at The Ark in Ann Arbor. This trio performs a unique blend of country/rock/folk, which some critics have called "cowpunk." Their most recent CD, Emotionalism is a slight departure from their previous efforts and is filled with tracks that tend to move away from the "punk" and more towards the folk. I was blown away at the band's ability to elicit a vast array of emotions from a banjo, guitar and stand-up bass. The crowd at the concert rarely sat down. The Avett Brothers are one of the finest alternative country acts touring today. If you have an opportunity to see a show, do not pass it up.
After reading an article about the new Breeders record in Spin magazine, I gave Mountain Battles a listen and was not surprised that I really like it. It sounds like a Breeders record, familiar yet diverse, but still sounds current. Or as one reviewer put it – “Like their three previous records, Mountain Battles is a record to return to again and again, like an old and dear friend who can still somehow surprise you”. The Spin article talked about how Kim Deal, who has always struck me as that really cool Aunt I always wished I had, moved back to Dayton, Ohio and used a bit of her Pixie’s money to purchase a nice ranch house in order to live near and care for her aging parents. That is about the coolest and most real thing I have ever heard a bona fide alt. rock legend admit to, how cool. Mountain Battles offers a great collection of songs all of which Steve Albini, another alt. rock legend, gives a muddy, low-fi production that works perfectly.