My Favorites of 2014
2014 has been a year when I’ve been relatively quiet on reviews, but I have been listening to many things, and I was very fortunate to attend some fabulous concerts that I’ve documented here with brief write-ups and photos (no photos of King Crimson!). I’ve also been focused on other things, including making noise with some guitars. As in the past, my listening is concentrated on what’s available to me, which is relatively narrow in scope, but I do listen to a pretty wide array of music.
This is my list of 14 favorites for 2014 (in no particular order) and then a few special categories. Each title on the list links to the artist or record label website. Happy Listening and I hope you all have a nice Holiday season, no matter what you celebrate. Thank you for reading in 2014!
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Nick Magnus – n’monix
Tony Patterson & Brendan Eyre – Northwinds
Should – The Great Pretend
Hallock Hill – Kosloff Mansion (My review was somewhat unconventional in interpretation–a really nice album).
Gareth Dickson – Invisible String (a compilation of recent live recordings)
Hiss Golden Messenger – Lateness of Dancers
Steve Hackett – Genesis Revisited: Live at the Royal Albert Hall 2CD/DVD (a fabulous live album & DVD with excellent sound quality!)
Stephen Vitiello + Taylor Deupree – Captiva (double 10” LP)
Medeski Scofield Martin Wood – Juice
Ben Watt – Hendra
Beck – Morning Phase
Levin Brothers – Levin Brothers (It’s only taken decades, but the Levin brothers got together and made a really marvelous jazz album)
Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread
Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd – White Bird in a Blizzard
Anthony Phillips – Harvest of the Heart (Anthology Boxed Set): Unlike the recent R-kive Genesis box set, Cherry Red knows how to put together a proper anthology, complete with many tracks of never-before heard music from AP’s archives.
Jason Molina – Songs: Ohia – Journey On (7” 45 RPM Compilation Box Set, a really beautiful set, probably rarer than hen’s teeth by now.)
King Crimson – The Elements (Tour Box, archive, live and some new material as a companion to the 2014 US Tour)
East River Pipe – The Gasoline Age (vinyl reissue, my introduction to the brilliant songs of F. M. Cornog when it was first released on CD in the early 1990s)
Lambchop – Live at XX Merge (I’m so happy that Merge Records decided to release this in honor of their 25th Anniversary. Looks like the LP is out of print for the moment.)
William Tyler – Lost Colony
Olan Mill – Half Seas Over (Live performances 2012-2014)…too short for an album, too long for an EP, but what the heck!
An Accidental Concert Photo
Review: William Tyler – Impossible Truth
Merge Records CD MRG465 – Time: About 54 minutes
http://www.mergerecords.com/artists/tyler%20william and http://www.sebastianspeaks.com/
Tracks: 1) Country Illusion, 2) The Geography Of Nowhere, 3) Cadillac Desert, 4) We Can’t Go Home Again, 5) A Portrait Of Sarah, 6) Hotel Catatonia, 7) The Last Residents Of Westfall, 8) The World Set Free
I posit that William Tyler is a thinker, and is perhaps more comfortable expressing himself with music than with words (although his spoken thoughts on the Merge teaser video have a distinct and interesting clarity). Tyler has worked in a number of bands prior to his solo albums including the Silver Jews, the ongoing experimental collective Hands Off Cuba and Lambchop (in addition to his record label, Sebastian Speaks). Tyler’s work brings a wide range of colors and moods to Lambchop’s sound, where he has been a principal guitarist for many years. Impossible Truth seems to me to be a more cohesive and mature work than his last solo album on the Tompkins Square label, Behold The Spirit. Nonetheless, I urge readers to seek out this very strong album.
The titles of the tracks on this album are like the names of short stories, and from the moment the cord is pulled on the first note of a track we are thrust right into the middle of the scene, without shyness or any lack of confidence. It almost feels like Tyler propels a well-worn yet vibrant flywheel at the start of each piece, and from that moment he is shaping and sculpting the sound and mood until the story is told.
Country Of Illusion starts mysteriously and sounding rather exotic (as if from a foreign land, sitar-like). There are sweeping passages envisioning a changing scene and then there are pauses (almost like a moment of contemplation) before moving through a sonic curtain and then the next passage of the tale. Some tracks show a greater tenderness (with solo acoustic guitar) than others like We Can’t Go Home Again or A Portrait Of Sarah (although musically the latter is quite adventurous, as are many relationships). The Geography Of Nowhere has a resonant otherness of being on the edge of consciousness and sensing the tangible without being able to actually reach it. There are others like Cadillac Desert and Hotel Catatonia that present vistas as broad and intense as a Montana sky (and I never knew what a big sky looked like until I saw one). The fretwork, picking and phrasing are tracing the landscapes and wrapping the listener in the gentle or gusty breezes of sound.
The Last Residents Of Westfall sounds like a scene from a dying or deserted town as the music pans to each of the buildings in the village, all with their own story to tell, some jaunty and others subdued. The closing track of the album, The World Set Free is the most reflective, but it enlivens joyfully as the track progresses—the acoustic bass being a steady and forthright heartbeat, and finally William Tyler releases to a growling close. I am trying to resist comparisons, but the opening section is similar to the instrumental sections of Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter.
Tyler disguises his guitars as many different instruments, and his musicianship and intense fingerings give a sense that more than one set of hands is at work, yet there is never a sense of Tyler playing a guitar hero—my guess is that he sees himself as quite the opposite. Just like Lambchop, William Tyler blurs the distinction of musical genres; first this is an instrumental acoustic and electric guitar album, there are hints of twang, country and roots in it, but also some blues, folk and rock and roll. Merge Records has a wide ranging catalog of musicians and has been around for more than two decades. I just finished reading and thoroughly enjoyed their biography of the first twenty years of Merge, Our Noise. Even though William Tyler has been part of the Merge family for many years in his work with Lambchop, I’m thrilled that he has released this latest brilliant solo album with Merge. This is an album that I highly recommend.
Merge Records just posted this reinterpretation (homage?) to the film Two Lane Blacktop with A Portrait of Sarah as the soundtrack.
East River Pipe – We Live In Rented Rooms
Merge Records – mrg342 – CD – Released 2011 – http://www.mergerecords.com/artists/eastrp
Track Listing: 1) Backroom Deals; 2) Cold Ground; 3) Payback Time; 4) Summer Boy; 5) I Don’t Care About Your Blue Wings; 6) Tommy Made a Movie; 7) The Flames Are Coming Back; 8) When You Were Doing Cocaine; 9) Conman; 10) Three Ships
I don’t recall the publication, but I certainly remember the moment and it marked a turning point for me—I was ready for something different, musically. Much of the music I had been listening to, at the time, was from larger commercial record labels with corporate directors and production teams, where artists rarely could steer their music in a direction of their own making. As much as I admire well-produced, engineered and recorded works of all sorts, the review I was reading in the late 1990s intrigued me enough to find a copy of East River Pipe’s “The Gasoline Age”.
East River Pipe is F.M. Cornog (aka, Fred) and his early adult years were apparently rather dark and mired with substance abuse and a brief encounter with homelessness. Eventually, with the assistance of a woman named Barbara Powers, F.M. recovered and she helped him acquire recording equipment to write songs. Years later, F.M. would marry Ms. Powers.
F.M. does not play live, or tour and he records alone, initially in his bedroom and now in a compact home-studio. He has a small and devoted fan base. His equipment is mostly low-tech (at first a 4 track portable) and though he has updated to digital recording his set-up remains simple. He writes his own material, plays the instruments, sings, produces, records and determines the direction of his own artistic expression. As far as I have read, his label Merge Records lets him do what he wants with his work and material is released on no particular schedule except when F.M. says the work is ready. I admit that for some, his music will be an acquired taste, but he writes on subjects that often cut right to the bone with reality. Artists such as Lambchop, David Byrne, The Mountain Goats and Okkervil River have covered his songs.
F.M. tells stories; some are stark, tragic and perhaps echo aspects of his own past. He also captures a mood and its color with a remarkable depth that belies the simplicity of a given song. Many of his songs are short, some seem like hooks or choruses without verses like “Wholesale Lies” from “The Gasoline Age”. In many ways, Fred writes with a clarity and sharpness as Ernest Hemingway wrote. What one hears in the words, melodies and instrumentation is all that’s needed to express the thought, nothing else.
After “The Gasoline Age”, I purchased his earlier works “Mel”, “Poor Fricky” and the compilation of his early cassette tape releases “Shining Hours in a Can”. Then to his subsequent releases “Garbageheads on Endless Stun” and the rather dark “What Are You On?” Cornog songs can be sardonic and even political and often (I think) there’s irony in the upbeat tone of the music as a sharp contrast to the dark subjects of the lyrics like with the opening track of “Where Does All The Money Go?” on “Garbageheads…”
Married and now with a young daughter and a day-job at Home Depot, Cornog’s releases are less frequent (5 years since his last), but his songs are still keen yet with slightly more atmospheric arrangements. The songs on “We Live In Rented Rooms” observe human conditions, provide social commentary, defend the defenseless and for some dream about what is likely unattainable. Some might think the subjects are a downer, but in many of the songs there are glimmers of hope in a verse, a chorus or a catchy melody. They are the kind of songs that can make one stop and think about one’s own situation.
I suppose that one might have to be in a certain frame of mind for listening to this album. “Backroom Deals” opens the album is a piece about the annoying realities of making it through a workday for many. Despite the melancholy of the languid almost defeated rhythm of the piece it’s punctuated deftly with guitar and electric piano to make it to quitting-time. “Summer Boy” is possibly the reality of a local who watches the comings and goings of tourists and at the end of the season, being the one who is forgotten. “The Flames Are Coming Back” is of one who is trying to turn a life around and the struggle to keep things together for a family. “When You Were Doing Cocaine” gets right to it with the shock of a corrupted life affecting others and the piece is sewn together with an almost lullaby of a melody and the dreamy irony of a chorus that beckons for a better place.
In the music business today, many artists demand to be seen and heard, but F.M. Cornog as East River Pipe, true to himself, quietly sings of those who exist below the din of a world flashing by.
This review appeared in the January 2012 Issue of Affordable Audio: http://www.affordableaudio.org/Affordable$$Audio/Current_Issue.html
Lambchop – Mr. M – UPDATED
Merge Records – MRG 434 (CD & LP Versions)
More information and available at: http://www.mergerecords.com/artists/lambchop
CD: Tracks 1) If not I’ll just die, 2) 2B2, 3) Gone tomorrow, 4) Mr. Met, 5) Gar, 6) Nice without mercy, 7) Buttons, 8) The good life (is wasted), 9) Kind of, 10) Betty’s Overture, 11) Never my love
Note: Double LP version has 3 sides with the 11 tracks of the CD and a 4th side with 4 additional tracks, “Guess I’m dumb” and three remixes of selected tracks noted above.
Album is dedicated to: James Victor Chesnutt
Kurt Wagner is a humble and interesting character (and from what I have read) a former flooring contractor, now artist, painter, musician, songwriter…and…human, with all the flaws, working through life in his marvelous songwriting.
I came to Lambchop’s work relatively late (through a lateral association with Vic Chesnutt, Mark Linkous and F. M. Cornog’s works) about 5 years ago when I first heard “The Daily Growl” from the 2002 album “Is a Woman”. I was immediately rapt with the music, instrumentation and the stream-of-consciousness lyrics (coming from a man who sounds like a reluctant singer). In that song alone, I felt and heard a deep inner beauty and from there I immediately acquired as many of Lambchop’s recordings I could get my hands on, back to their first in 1994 “I Hope You’re Sitting Down/Jack’s Tulips”. At times, Wagner’s song lyrics seem to have little relation to the apparent subject matter of a given song, or they form the basis for the emotion being expressed (with distracted interjections), and at times the lyrics form a connective thread for the music (like the song “Paperback Bible” from the 2006 album “Damaged”, which I have read is a transcript from a local Nashville radio station broadcast set to music).
Lambchop’s music is neither country nor folk, nor is it rock or alternative. It’s rather indescribable, yet it is often introspective and has a strong sense of a given moment, emotion or place. “Mr. M” is the eleventh studio album by Lambchop (a collective of musicians centered on Kurt Wagner). The band is a core of familiar players: Scott Martin (drums), Matt Swanson (bass), Ryan Norris (guitar and organ), William Tyler (guitar) with guests (original co-founder) Jonathan Marx (credited with “noises”), Cortney Tidwell (vocals and collaborator on their KORT project) and others (see link to Merge Records above).
Gone Tomorrow (official video):
2B2 (official video):
Apparently, for a time Wagner considered not recording again until he was convinced by friends (including producer Mark Nevers) to go back into the studio. Wagner was painting and doing other things prior to writing the songs and working on the recording (the album was recorded from 2009 to 2011). Wagner’s paintings form the basis for the album’s artwork, from a series of black and white (heavy brush stroke) paintings entitled “Beautillion Militaire 2000”. “Mr. M”, while another in the canon of rather quiet and contemplative works by Lambchop, is an appropriate and loving tribute to Vic Chesnutt.
In this work the lyrics vary from literal heartbreak to ironic wordplay and at times are layered with references to song arrangements having an effect (in real time) on Wagner, random thoughts, daily routines and things as mundane (yet real) as a coffee maker or trash on the motorway. The instrumental “Gar” is a gorgeous and timeless interlude at the heart of the album, beautifully arranged with strings, woodwinds and Cortney Tidwell’s harmonic layered vocals. “The Good Life” is reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s works of self-examination. In some ways this album has a similar spirit of introspection and sound to Nick Drake’s “Bryter Layter”—another album of observations, hope, dreams and deep reflections. Some may say that “Mr. M” is rather sleepy, but I think it’s a soul-cleansing meditation with many layers of symbolism to be discovered and understood as one listens more. The strings and woodwinds arrangements are just right (similar to Robert Kirby’s on Drake’s “Bryter Layter”).
I am thankful that Kurt Wagner and Lambchop decided to make music again.
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Review: We Live In Rented Rooms by East River Pipe
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