Some Dudes, Some Snow and the First Noel
Great Records to Mark the Passing of the Year

I’m sneezing and sniffling and holding my throbbing head at the moment, so I’m hoping to keep this one quick. A few thoughts on some end-of-the-year records, and then I’m headed back to bed. Luckily, we’re in the waning days of 2011, when most of the new releases are live albums or repackagings. But there are still some gems in these last few months, and I’ve got a few on tap this time.

Cough. Sneeze. OK, let’s go.

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I had a chance to support David Mead, and I didn’t take it.

I’m ashamed, no doubt. Mead is the kind of singer-songwriter the world could use more of. For more than a decade, he’s been so consistently good that the general public has completely ignored him. Granted, it’s hard to get a handle on him – he has seven albums now, and none of them sound alike, from the acoustic country-folk of Indiana, to the more studied chamber-pop of Tangerine, to 2008’s lovely, low-key Almost and Always. You really don’t know what Mead’s going to try next, but at this point, it’s a safe bet that it will be fantastic.

Mead funded his seventh album, Dudes, through Kickstarter, raising production money from fans willing to pitch in. And I should have been one of those fans. I don’t know what happened. This is exactly the kind of thing I normally do. There’s no reason I can think of that I wouldn’t have sent David Mead $20 to help make this thing. And now that I’ve heard it, I really don’t get why I didn’t. Dudes may not be Mead’s best album, but it’s his most fun, and for a guy with a pretty serious catalog, that counts for a lot.

If you’ve never heard Mead before, the first thing you’ll notice is his astonishing, elastic voice. Dudes begins with a shimmering showcase for that voice – “I Can’t Wait” is folksy, with a shuffling hi-hat beat and some lovely pedal steel, and a chorus that sets the optimistic tone: “I can’t wait to get up, get up, get out of bed…” It’s one of the few moments of quiet beauty here – much of Dudes has an energy, an immediacy that Mead rarely traffics in. “King of the Crosswords” is a tremendous pop song, with a “Yakety Sax” baritone that takes it to this whole other place. “Guy On Guy” is about a man exploring homosexuality, set to a drunken carnival beat, like a particularly boozy Rolling Stones b-side.

And yeah, there are some moments here, like “Bocce Ball,” that sacrifice craft for fun. (Although I love the vocal arrangement on that brief tune.) “Happy Birthday Marty Ryan” is a stomper, all snarling guitars and pounding pianos, but it sounds like it was written half an hour before the record button was pressed. Mead scores more highly with pieces like the title track, an acoustic paean to enduring friendship. And though the title led me to expect another throwaway, “The Smile of Rachael Ray” is Dudes’ best tune, sweet and heartbreaking.

David Mead has always been a more considered songwriter, but there’s a likeable looseness to Dudes – hearing That Voice drop f-bombs and shimmy through the deliriously vulgar “No One Roxx This Town No More” is all kinds of hilarious. Some of these songs aren’t worthy of a songwriter of his caliber, and I should be disappointed in them, but I’m not. This record sounds like it was a blast to make, and there are enough pretty, well-put-together tunes like “Don’t Forget” and “Curled Up in the Corner” to keep me on board. Dudes is the most fun Mead has ever had on disc, and even though I missed the chance to support its creation, I’m happy to recommend it. Go here.

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I’m about to talk about the new Kate Bush album, but I just want to take a minute and revel in that phrase: the new Kate Bush album.

From 1978 to 1993, Kate Bush released an astonishing run of seven records, every one of them an idiosyncratic, thoroughly individual piece of work. And then she disappeared, for an endless 12 years. It was somewhere in those 12 years that I actually heard Bush’s music for the first time – I initially considered her a Tori Amos ripoff, before shamefacedly realizing my mistake. It was a little depressing, though. How often in your life do you discover a musician like Kate Bush? And then to hear that she’d drifted away in the early ‘90s, and hadn’t been heard from since?

That’s why 2005’s dazzling double album Aerial was such a treat. But now, it’s starting to look like the start of a renaissance. Bush’s new album, 50 Words for Snow, is her second of 2011. That’s right, Kate Bush released two full-length studio records this year. Granted, the first, Director’s Cut, consisted of reworkings of earlier material, but the point remains. Bush is one of the most original, uncompromising, fantastic artists in the world, and she’s back to giving us new material regularly again. This is cause for celebration.

Or, in this case, perhaps quiet reflection would be more appropriate. Bush has perfectly timed 50 Words for Snow for the oncoming winter – it’s uncommonly patient, unfolding slowly over seven long songs and 65 minutes, and most of it is performed on piano, voice, pitter-patter drums and little else. It’s also uncommonly beautiful, if you’re up for it. The first three tracks in particular drift along so quietly, change so subtly, that you’ll either be swept up in them, or you’ll find them too easy to ignore.

I love them. In a very real way, these songs are duets between Bush and drummer Steve Gadd, whose work is perfectly attuned to the wintry mood. “Snowflake” is sparse, like the first hints of flurries coming down, Bush leaving whole empty skies of space between her fragmented piano figures. Bush’s son Albert sings this one, his high choirboy voice fitting the tune’s innocence perfectly. “Lake Tahoe,” the story of a ghost looking for her long-lost dog, fills things out a little more, but not much – Bush wraps her voice around those of Stefan Roberts and Michael Wood, achieving something of a Christmas carol sound.

There’s a moment about halfway through the 13-minute “Misty” when the strings come in, pulling everything together in a bright, melodic sweep. It’s over pretty quickly, but if you’ve been listening all along, you know that the previous 28 minutes have all been leading to that moment. No other Kate Bush album rewards patient and thorough listening quite like this one does – in many ways, it’s all one long song, suitable for driving through snow at night.

Which is why “Wild Man” is initially such a surprise. Nestled at track four, after more than half an hour of delicate piano, we get an old-school, synth-driven Kate Bush tune. “Wild Man” is about a team of explorers who find evidence of Bigfoot, and brush it away, determined to protect the creature. Andy Fairweather-Low joins in on vocals, while Bush half-speaks the verses over thumping bass and a skipping beat from Gadd. At first, it seems like a strange fit for this record, but it kicks off a trilogy of fuller pieces, the album’s cresting wave.

“Snowed In at Wheeler Street” is a dark, haunting duet with Elton John, and perhaps the first thing ol’ Reg has done in about 20 years that doesn’t make me want to stab my own eardrums out. Bush’s piano returns, over a shivering synth line, as she and Elton play two lovers finding each other again after a long separation. The title track is the album’s oddest – the lyrics are a literal list of 50 words for snow, read by Stephen Fry, as Bush cheers him on in the background. (“Come on, man, you’ve got 44 to go!”) It’s oddly magnificent, inspiring stuff. The list includes real words from other languages alongside terms like “erase-o-dust.” (Oh, and “peDtaH ‘ej chIS qo’,” apparently, is Klingon for snow.) It’s a song no one else on earth would create.

50 Words for Snow concludes with “Among Angels,” a return to the wintry piano of the first three tracks. In fact, it’s the only instrument, aside from some subtle strings, and Bush’s glorious voice drifts over it gracefully. It’s a perfect ending to this album, like quietly turning off the lights and watching the snow fall. I was hoping this record would be good. I didn’t expect it would captivate me as much as it has. This is a record unlike any she has made, and yet still one that only Kate Bush would make. I’m so very, very glad she’s back.

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I’ve always had a soft spot for Noel Gallagher.

Maybe it’s just that he comes off as less of an asshole than his brother Liam, or maybe it’s that he wrote the best Oasis songs. Or maybe it’s that I have a thing for the behind-the-scenes guys, the ones who do all the work while the loudmouths out front get all the credit. It would be tough to paint Noel with that brush, granted – he’s a pretty substantial loudmouth in his own right – but he does get shafted in favor of Liam pretty often, when he was clearly the brains of that operation.

And my sympathy for him was only heightened when literally every other member of Oasis picked Liam in the split-up. They’re all calling themselves Beady Eye now, and earlier this year, they released a decent debut album, Different Gear, Still Speeding. I can’t help but smile, however, now that I’ve heard Noel’s solo bow, the much-better Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. He’s still the brainiest Gallagher, the one with the pop smarts, and if it means more records like this one, Liam can have the band and the spotlight.

Where Beady Eye retained most of the snarl of Oasis records, High Flying Birds debuts a more mature, considered sound. First single “The Death of You and Me” sums it up – a Beatlesque bounce, a lovely melody, an acoustic-based arrangement, and a superb hint to “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in the horn charts. “Dream On” is splendid, its rigid beat supporting an absolutely soaring chorus. “If I Had a Gun” is one of the record’s prettiest songs, flowing from one well-written section to another with ease. And “AKA What a Life” rocks the hardest, with nary an electric guitar chord in sight – it’s all pounding pianos and thudding beats.

High Flying Birds also finally finds a home for the long-gestating Oasis track “Stop the Clocks.” It was very much worth the wait – a sweet acoustic number with a (forgive me) high-flying chorus, it provides a lilting finish to this album. The good news for fans of Oasis is that we now have two full-time, full-fledged recording careers to follow, and they’ve both proven to be worthwhile. I’ll admit to liking Noel’s record better, but I’m glad to have both options. Near the end there, Oasis was getting stale, running aground, and now both Gallaghers sound energized, ready for new beginnings. I’m right there with them.

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Cough. Sneeze. Sniff. I’m heading back to sleep. Next week, some people I know: Noah Gabriel and the Mainers in Big Blood.

And speaking of people I know, I’ll talk more about this next week, but check out the Made in Aurora Christmas album I contributed to. Sixteen holiday songs by Aurora-area artists (including me, on piano for one track and on backing vocals for another). It’s $25, but you can also get it bundled with a bunch of other local Christmas CDs. Check it out here.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.