Thursday, December 11, 2014

Listing To Starboard: Favorite Albums 2014

TOP 25: 2014
It's almost a shame to close the door on 2014, another phenomenal year for music. So much greatness out there, and non-list honorable mentions go out to White Lung, Flying Lotus, EMA, Shabazz Palaces, Hiss Golden Messenger, Bob Mould, Woods, Wye Oak, Reigning Sound, and Curtis Harding--all LP's well worth following up on. The entries here run the gamut, leaning heavily on first timers, and showing my usual noisy biases. Geographically, it wanders further afield than my usual diet of US/Canadian/UK indie-noise, with Australia (Courtney Barnett and Mere Women) and Costa Rica (Las Robertas) represented. One interesting trend is a number of tuneful and melodic (for me) records, (Peaking Lights, Fear Of Men, La Sera), that, back in the pre-internet radio days, would have yielded a number of singles. With the usual caveat, (favorite vs. best), here's the 25 that kept me going through the year, turntable-wise and otherwise, the guests that wouldn't leave...

25) SOME EMBER: Some Ember (Dream Recordings)

24)SHARON VAN ETTEN: Are We There (Jagjaguwar)

23) CHASMS: Subtle Bodies (Sleep Genius)

22) PAWS: Youth Culture Forever (Fat Cat)

21) PRIESTS:  Bodies and Control and Money and Power (Sister Polygon/Don Giovanni)

 20) MITSKI: bury me at makeout creek (Double Double Whammy)

19) MERE WOMEN: Your Town (Poison City Records)

18) tUnE-yArDs: Nikki Nack (4AD)

17) LAS ROBERTAS: Days Unmade (Arts and Crafts/Dead Labour)

16) FEAR OF MEN: Loom (Kanine)

15) LA SERA: Hour Of The Dawn (Hardly Art)

14) PEAKING LIGHTS: Cosmic Logic (Weird World)

13) SPOON: They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)

12) ORENDA FINK: Blue Dream (Saddle Creek)

11) BABY GHOSTS: Maybe Ghosts (Lost Cat Records)

10) GIRLPOOL: Girlpool EP (Big Joy/Wichita)

9) CHEATAHS: Cheatahs (Wichita)

8) PERFECT PUSSY: Say Yes To Love (Captured Tracks)

7) TACOCAT: NVM (Hardly Art)

6) ANGEL OLSEN: Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)

5) RUN THE JEWELS: Run The Jewels II (Mass Appeal)
As initially announced, Run The Jewels was a curious endeavor. The combination of Killer Mike and El-P leveraged years of good will amongst the heads, and dropped an LP that showcased an amazing chemistry, and it was no surprise when they went back to the well. Sharpened by touring, Run The Jewels II tears up the modern Hip Hop template, kicking in the door and demanding a place at the table for two 39 year olds. Delving into both the personal and political, while not sacrificing the fun that got them there, Run The Jewels has struck a chord as an unlikely conscience. High points abound, but the summit of the record is the closing combo of "Crown" and "Angel Dusted", with the 'Monk on acid' keyboard lines of the latter proving to be one of the final recorded testaments of the late Ikey Owens.

4) AFGHAN WHIGS: Do to the Beast (Sub Pop)
 The only surprise about Do to the Beast was that it could be recorded in secret in this day and age. Stoked on by a reunion tour, the band hunkered down and knocked out a classic, their first LP in sixteen years standing comfortably next to their classic titles Gentlemen and Black Love. It's an older and wiser, but no less lethal Greg Dulli, and he's kept his ear close to the ground, utilizing beats and symphonics to buttress the classic Afghan Whigs sonic template. Thematically, there's never a doubt as to what's coming at you, just Dulli's method of delivery, and his control is the key, heightening the suspense to increase the payoff when he hits full howl. "Lost In The Woods" stands with any of the band's songs, and opener

3) COURTNEY BARNETT: A Sea Of Split Peas (Milk! Records/Mom and Pop)
Billed as "The Double EP", Courtney Barnett's first stateside release is a compilation of two Australian EP's, I've Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris and How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose, serving as the perfect introduction to a singular talent. Lyrically and musically, you drift along with her shaggy dog stories through unexpected twists and turns, until an unexpected blitz of feedback or a caustic turn of phrase makes you realize she had the whole thing mapped out. "Avant Gardener" and "History Eraser" are the best places to jump in, but it's the encapsulated yearning of "Anonymous Club" and "Porcelain" that will keep you coming back.

2) CLOUD NOTHINGS: Here And Nowhere Else (Carpark/Mom and Pop)
With Here And Nowhere Else, Cloud Nothings trimmed down to a trio, and went even further down the noisy trail, thickening the arrangements and compressing multiple songs worth of hooks into one. It's not just that no punk record this year came close to this one-comets like this only appear every few years on the horizon, (Husker Du's New Day Rising and ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's Source Tags and Codes leap to mind), records that start at eleven, and somehow seem to push further out.

1) RADIATOR HOSPITAL: Torch Songs (Salinas)
Sam Cook-Parrott's Radiator Hospital project transcended becoming the name he slapped on his varying whims with last year's Something Wild. Putting together a full band as well as drawing on his circle of friends, Torch Songs ups the ante, drawing you in song by song, sometimes cryptic, sometimes bitingly universal. "Cut Your Bangs" is the most perfect, concentrated blast of "what the hell was that" since Pavement's "Zurich Is Stained". Everyone I know seems to have a different song for a favorite, always a good sign, and while in interviews, Sam Cook-Parrott has noted the influence of Willie DeVille on "Venus Of The Avenue", for me, the connection was made when I realized that it has the grace and lift of a classic Drifters song. The crowning glory and unifier of the record is the dual versions of "Fireworks, a song that stays with you long after the record ends.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Stevie Wonder: Songs In The Key Of Life Tour

29 NOVEMBER, 2014
In the glorious star chamber that is the internet, everything is epic, every show killed, and everyone is awesome...sometimes one needs a check and a brief reset when history unspools in front of them. Working with a stacked band complete with horns, a string section, and some special guests, Stevie Wonder brought his celebration of 1976's Songs In The Key Of Life to the MGM Grand Arena in Los Vegas, one night of an all too brief run. Setting the tone right away with opener "Love's In Need Of Love Today", Stevie locked into second half improv and took it to the heavens. While deeply nostalgic, the night was not a nostalgia trip; it was about honoring, opening up, and exploring the songs, and while the show mostly followed the album template, it was anything but rote. First guests of the night were India Arie and Frederic Yonnet on "Have A Talk With God", and the string section took the spotlight on the still relevant "Village Ghetto Land". A searing take on "Contusion" kept the concise form of the LP version, rather than the sometimes almost 20 minute monsters heard on the '73/'74 tours. Back to back #1's, "Sir Duke" and "I Wish" galvanized the audience, and showed off the horn section to great effect, but interestingly, the first mass singalong, at least in my section, came after Stevie moved over to the Yamaha grand piano to essay an expansive "Knocks Me Off My Feet". Taking a brief respite from strict format, a jam introduced backup singer Keith John, (son of legendary Little Willie John), and showcased the horns and strings, as well as band MVP Greg Phillinganes and long-serving bassist Nathan Watts. Getting back on track with "Pastime Paradise", Stevie emphatically reclaimed it for his own, and set the stage for a moving "Summer Soft", featuring Buffalo, NY's own Ronnie Foster, on organ. Side two closer "Ordinary Pain" gave the backup singers, including Wonder's daughter Aisha, some love. Coming in, my big question was how the bonus EP tracks would be treated. While almost an afterthought to an already sprawling double album, they were not treated lightly, and the evening's first true sequencing left turn came with "Saturn" heralding the return of a resplendent India Arie to the stage, and a buoyant "Ebony Eyes" took us up to the intermission. And that was just the first half.

For the second half, the format was Side 3, side B of the bonus EP, then the logical conclusion of Side 4, for those of you thoroughly invested in minutiae. "Isn't She Lovely", of course, had the added gravitas of its subject, Aisha, present onstage. "Joy Inside My Tears" was prefaced with an emotional introduction, and Stevie sang it from the gut, registering it, along with "Knocks Me Off My Feet", as totally unexpected highlights of the evening. "Black Man" couldn't have been performed at a more appropriate time in our current history, and like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, reminds us that we haven't necessarily moved as far ahead as we should have. Overlooked in the polemics is that this was one of Wonder's funkiest tunes ever, and live, the horns held up their end, bolstering the tension with clipped bursts. The call and response educational section was the original LP's dropped in, as there's no topping some things. It was interesting to see Wonder mouthing along at various points of the historical roll call, and I imagine it must have been a charge to have been present to see the kids at the recording. Continuing the funk, "All Day Sucker" got a lively reading, setting the table for the instrumental "Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)", which, like "Contusion", alludes to things perhaps beyond verbalization, and is the ultimate testament to Wonder's gift that he can bring it home for us without words. Musically, it's the polar opposite of "Contusion", a harmonica duet that Stevie double tracked himself for on the original recording, but in this performance, was aided and abetted by the more than able Frederic Yonnet. I think at the time, many folks wrote off the bucolic instrumental at the tail end of a bonus 45, at the tail end of a double album, but the performance, and Yonnet's star turn force a reassessment. The home stretch of Side 4 came to life with "Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing", before giving way to yet another emotional high point, Stevie singing "If It's Magic" over the late Dorothy Ashby's original harp performance. Which brings us to the end, as those familiar with the LP know: the glory of sitting through the whole thing is rewarded by an incredible one-two punch ending of a pair of Wonder's finest songs, "As" and "Another Star", and it was here that the night achieved transcendence. I didn't think anything could top his triumphant appearance at SF's Outsidelands Festival in 2012, but if there's one lesson we've learned through the years, it's to never underestimate Stevie Wonder.

Keith John takes the spotlight
Nathan Watts leads the charge
Frederic Yonnet (left) duetting with Stevie
Stevie Wonder, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, 24 November, 2014