That’ll teach me to open my mouth.
After waxing lyrical for two weeks straight about how there just isn’t anything interesting happening in the last two months of the year, I get to eat those words this week. A couple of potentially fascinating projects have been announced in the last few days, and I expect they’ll fill the empty weeks until 2011 nicely.
First up is the Choir, perhaps my favorite band. After taking five years off, they’re about to release their second album of 2010. (It’s shipping now, in fact, from www.thechoir.net.) It’s called De-plumed; Exposed, Laid Bare, Featherless, and it’s a collection of new acoustic takes on songs from their long history. Twelve songs, in fact, one from each of their albums. They picked some I might not have (“Hey Gene,” “Enough to Love”), but they also selected a few of my favorites, including “To Bid Farewell” and “A Sentimental Song.” Two Choir albums in one year? Pinch me.
And on December 14, the first posthumous Michael Jackson album hits stores. Simply called Michael, it is purportedly made up of recordings he was working on at the time of his death last year. This will be interesting for me on a musical level, certainly, but also on a sociological one. Will the general public embrace this project more than they did Jackson’s last couple of records? Is dying the best thing one can do for one’s career? Or will this be considered disturbing the self-styled King of Pop’s grave? Most important of all, will this be any good?
In between those two is Eric Johnson’s sixth album, Up Close. Johnson’s one of those guitar players who doesn’t get a lot of press, but should. He’s fantastic, and I’m looking forward to this. And of course, there’s the three-CD monstrosity The Story of Our Lives by the Violet Burning, expected to ship sometime in December. And Live at Cadogan Hall, an acoustic document from Marillion. Turns out all is not as bleak as I thought. The moral of this story: don’t ever listen to me. I have no idea what I’m talking about.
And now, more of my opinions.
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I listen to a lot of music, much more than the average person. I know this. Because I listen to a lot of music, people ask me all the time how I discover the bands I write about here. They often pose this question as if I have some kind of super-power, or inside track. What I usually want to say is this: I’m so behind the curve it’s not even funny. There’s new music coming out every week that I will never hear, and some of it is bound to be life-changingly good. I feel like I’m in slow motion a lot of the time.
But I don’t say that. My standard answer is that I keep my ears open, searching out new stuff (and keeping track of established bands that have fallen out of favor) at a rate some might call obsessive. Even though this casts a pretty wide net, I still rely on other music fans to point me in the direction of good stuff I’ve missed. I’m blessed to have an entire network of similarly-obsessive music lovers looking out for me, and I return the favor as often as I can.
This week is all about those people. I’ve mentioned several of them before, like Dr. Tony Shore and Jeff Elbel. I owe a lot of what I do to fellow fans who get just as excited about new music as I do, and can’t wait to share it. I’m grateful that they’ve shared it with me.
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Somewhere in the dark recesses of the United Kingdom lives a man named Nick Martin. I’ve never met him, I’ve never spoken to him. But anything he suggests I buy, I will buy.
Granted, he doesn’t do it often. Nick’s an occasional correspondent, and his recommendations, usually of UK bands that haven’t found their way across the pond, are becoming an annual tradition. Last year he turned me on to the sweet, glittering pop of the Yeah You’s, and their debut album Looking Through You scored an honorable mention in 2009’s top 10 list. (It topped Tony Shore’s list, after I shared Nick’s suggestion.)
This year, Nick got me hooked on Everything Everything, a virtually unknown British band with a sound that knocks me out. It’s part modern Brit-pop (singer Jonathan Higgs has that high, wavery, Thom Yorke/Chris Martin tone), but part ballsy prog, taking a lot from Drums and Wires-era XTC. Rhythms are constantly shifting and moving, melodies collapse in on themselves, nothing remains in one place for any length of time, and yet these songs are catchy and unforgettable.
Everything Everything’s debut is called Man Alive. Its 12 songs never sit still. Opener “My Kz, Ur Bf” rises above its text-speak title, delivering a trippy mix of herky-jerky rhythms, swelling keyboards and a dynamite chorus. “Qwerty Finger” is even better, mainly because it’s faster, but even when this band slows it down, as on “Leave the Engine Room,” they can’t resist making something complex and consistently engaging.
And then there is “Photoshop Handsome,” a whirlwind of vocals, marching band drums and clean guitars. It’ll knock you flat. They follow that up with “Two for Nero,” a modern “Scarborough Fair,” all harpsichords and intertwining voices. I haven’t heard anything like this on a new pop album in years. Amazingly, the quality of Man Alive never dips, mainly because Higgs and his cohorts never settle. Every song here takes off in a million directions you won’t expect.
The only stumbling block here is Higgs’ voice, which sometimes stretches past its capabilities. But it does provide an interesting counterbalance – the songs are very precise, and his singing is loose and slippery. Some of these melodies, like the cascading craziness of “Come Alive Diana,” are out of his grasp. It adds a touch of humanity, but a stronger, less watery voice might have fit this music better.
That’s it, though. It’s my only quibble with this very fine debut from a band hopefully destined for greatness. Nick Martin has done it again, and I can’t wait to hear what he recommends next year. Hear Everything Everything here.
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Steve Warrenfeltz is an old hippie.
It’s okay, I can say that. I spend thousands of dollars a year in his record store, Kiss the Sky, a little piece of heaven right in my home town. Part of the charm of Kiss the Sky is that it’s run by two guys who bucked the establishment – both Steve and his business partner Mike Messerschmidt left cushy corporate jobs to open the store, because they were sick of working for the man. It’s a very child-of-the’60s (and very admirable) thing to do.
So Steve’s an old hippie, and he likes old hippie music, like Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and old blues guys. When he’s in the store, that’s what you’ll hear. So imagine my surprise when I wandered in last week and heard, coming from the speakers, this lovely, rootsy, completely unfamiliar music. I listened to two songs, loved them both, and asked Steve just what he was playing. And he said, “It’s a local guy.”
And I said, “What?” Because the production on this stuff was just incredible. Huge and clear and full and dense, like the product of the finest Nashville studio. Turns out, he was spinning the debut from Miles Nielsen, and while he lives in the western Chicago suburbs, he’s not just a local guy. Illinois residents certainly recognize that last name – Miles is the son of Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, and he pulled in some top-notch backup and production help for his self-titled record.
Which explains the sterling sound, but even the best production couldn’t disguise lousy songs. Miles Nielsen writes really good songs. Some of them sound like old standards, some like Ryan Adams on a good day, but all of them are heartfelt and well-crafted. I’m particularly fond of the shuffling “Good Heart Sway” – that one has a chorus that won’t quit, and a clarinet part to top it off. But all 12 of these songs are worthwhile, and the end result is 37 minutes of history-conscious rock and roll.
Nielsen pulled in Bun E. Carlos to play drums, and former Black Crowe Marc Ford to play guitar, but the dominant voice here is his. Man, just listen to “Sugarfree.” I haven’t heard a country-rock song this good in a long time. “Wine” is dark and powerful (“Been drinkin’ all the poisonous berries”), its shambling percussion adding a new dimension, while “Lost My Mind” is a hit single waiting to happen, like the best of the Old 97’s. It all ends with “The Crown,” a lovely little tune built on acoustic guitars, piano, vibes and some subtle mellotron.
Miles Nielsen has once again proven that the famous progeny theory is just plain wrong. His songs deserve to stand on their own, and they deserve a much wider audience. It’s telling that every time Steve plays this album in the store, someone asks about it. This is just a superb little album, and I thank Steve for turning me on to it. You can hear Miles here.
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Rob Hale’s another guy who works at Kiss the Sky, but he’s not an old hippie. In fact, he’s my age, and his favorite thing to play in the store is Porcupine Tree. That’s in fact how we met – I complimented him for treating customers to The Incident, the latest PT album, and we hit it off from there.
Of course, we soon found out that we disagree more than we agree. But that just comes with the territory when you’re an obsessive music fan. I already trust Rob’s taste, so when he called the new Oceansize album his record of the year, I had to hear it. It’s called Self-Preserved While the Bodies Float Up, and while I’m more lukewarm about it than he is, it is an impressive disc.
Oceansize is an English quintet with three prior albums and a host of EPs. They’ve flown entirely under my radar, and I’m working feverishly to correct that oversight now. They play a heavy version of shoegaze prog, their songs sometimes stretching to 10 minutes or more without a lot of apparent movement, but lots of energy. I’d never call them metal, but they do get very, very loud, as heard on the opening track of the new one, “Part Cardiac.” It’s a sludgy, melody-free nightmare that almost kept me from pushing on, and I still think it was an odd choice for the album’s leadoff slot, but I’m glad I kept going. Self-Preserved gets a lot better from there.
I like how many different tones the album takes on, from the bullets-from-above monster “Build Us a Rocket Then…” to the expansive nine-minute “Oscar Acceptance Speech,” which ends with two full minutes of keyboard orchestration. Singer Mike Vennart never screams, but his voice is powerful and melodic, and suits the songs. This is the kind of band that will go from the atmospheric “Ransoms,” with its subtle organ parts, to the almost psychedelic “A Penny’s Weight,” to the damn near apocalyptic “It’s My Tail and I’ll Chase It if I Want To.” Along the way, they prove their worth as players, handling all of the tricky material with ease.
So yeah, this is certainly remarkable stuff, even if it doesn’t leave much of a mark. This record is definitely a grower, and I like it more each time I listen, but I sometimes wish the band would grab hold of a killer melody and run with it. I’ve heard most of their previous album, Frames, and it seems that this turn towards the more hypnotic is new. I think Frames is the better record, but I’m growing to appreciate and enjoy Self-Preserved as well. I’m certainly not ready to name it the album of the year, as Rob did, but I’m glad I listened to him and picked it up.
Hear Oceansize here.
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Sometimes – not often, but sometimes – people will contact me to recommend their own work. I’m always curious about it when they do. I try to hear everything I can get my hands on, and chances are I’d never have otherwise found many of the independent artists who reach out to me.
The latest to do so is Andy B. White, a Chicago native whose new album is called The Road to Here. Andy sent me this record months ago, and I’ve been trying to find the time and space to work in a review. I’m very glad I lived with it for a while, though, because this is a really good album, and its charms were not immediately apparent to me. On the first couple of listens, I thought The Road to Here was nice, but unremarkable. But soon it became part of my regular rotation, and it worked its way into my life with subtle persistence. Now I like it a lot.
Andy B. White is a former member of the band Favorite, but for his debut solo album, he stripped things down almost completely. The Road to Here is performed primarily on acoustic guitar, and none of its 11 songs feature drums. Acoustic records are difficult to pull off – there’s no hiding behind walls of sound, and if the songs don’t work, there’s nothing else to catch the ear. White doesn’t have any of these problems. His songs are simple, but effective, and his voice is clear and strong. Many of these tunes have string arrangements, but they’re quiet, in supporting roles, and they work beautifully.
I’m a big fan of “I’m Not Giving Up on You and Me,” with duet vocals by Cate Kanell. Even though it’s sequenced second, it sets the tone for the album. It’s sweet and bright and hopeful, and doesn’t mind wearing its heart on its sleeve. “First Grade Letter” is the same, its lyrics telling a delightful tale of young love remembered. “In a world full of split hearts, I still believe in a love that’s so pure, in a hope so unwavering,” White sings, and seriously, you can’t make a line like that work unless you mean it.
The gently swaying “Wake” is about as intense as this record gets, its insistent guitar figure (in seven-four time) supporting a dark and sweet string section. “The Hungry Deep” is another favorite, its very form mimicking the sea voyage the lyrics describe. “We still row on,” White repeats, the cellos cascading like waves upon the rolling guitar line. It’s a very cool arrangement. The album ends with a pair of grace notes, “Peace of Mind” and “Moving On,” capping off a record about looking through life’s painful moments and finding the love that’s all around.
I have two quibbles with this record. First, the songs are generally pretty simple, and I know that’s intentional, but my mind wanders sometimes while listening. Second, the sound and tone of the album is consistent, all acoustics and quiet meditations, and by the end, it blends together. Next time, I’d like to hear some variety in White’s songwriting and arrangement choices. But overall, The Road to Here is a quietly hopeful work that, given time, will become like an old friend, whispering encouraging words and sharing your burden. It’s that kind of record, and those are deceptively hard to make.
You can (and should) hear Andy B. White here.
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Thanks to everyone I mentioned this week, and everyone who sends me tips and recommendations. Keep them coming. I’m always grateful. Next week, I think, a trip back to an embarrassing time in my past. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.