The mainstream drew me back in a little this year, though mostly by looking back several decades to the same things I love and incorporating them into music that doesn't especially sound like 2014.
I think of Silver Mt. Zion as the post-rock Pogues. They have the drunken singing and the scratchy fiddling and the punky energy, but in a sort of gritty yet sophisticated Godspeed! You Black Emperor musical context (and in fact founder/singer/guitarist Efrim Manuel Menuck used to be in Godspeed!). On their eighth album, the added intensity that appeared on their previous album is increased; this may be their best yet. My favorite track is "What We Loved Was Not Enough," where at first it seems like he's singing "The days come when we no longer fail," but then when the women chime in with the same line minus his accent, it turns out "fail" is actually "feel"; across over 11 minutes, this becomes mantra-like. But really the whole album is stunning. (This review originally appeared in the print version of The Big Takeover.) Read more »
What a year in rock music! There, I said it. Too much to take in. Like a rowboat taking in more water than I can bail out. I keep getting new music recommended to me by friends, publicists, old lovers, dudes on subways, songs blasting in hipster boutiques; freakin' new music was everywhere. I got tipped to U.K. acts such as punk rockers Sleaford Mods, poetry rapper Kate Tempest, and folkster Jake Bugg; there was a new pop rock opus by Dan Wilson, and soulful Brooklynite Selena Garcia, and much more. I could barely compile my "best of/favorites of 2014" list knowing that I'll probably discover even more music after I've completed it. But here goes...my ten favorite tracks from 2014, a few essential reissues, and my ten favorite albums, yes, albums, like on real heavy duty vinyl, with two sides and everything. Read more »
First, the calendar. Blues Images is the vision of fanatical blues collector John Tefteller, who recently paid $37,100, reportedly the highest price ever for a 78 RPM record, to acquire the second known copy of a rare Tommy Johnson record -- and he already owned the other copy! (More about that in a bit.) Clearly this is a man who takes the blues seriously.
After acquiring a large collection of material related to the famous Paramount label in 2003, Tefteller started this calendar series featuring the wonderful art drawn for vintage advertisements of Paramount records during the label's 1922-32 heyday, and artists' promotional photos. Since then, Blues Images has branched out to include material from other labels' artists -- for instance, the 2015 calendar's April page features a great photo of the duo of Brother Son Bonds and Hammie Nixon, Decca artists. The first 12 tracks on the accompanying CD are always synched with each month's artwork, so the fourth track is their gospel tune "I Want to Live So God Can Use Me." October features a 1930 photo of the young Roosevelt Sykes; on the CD he's represented by "Conjur Man Blues," which he recorded for Paramount under the pseudonym Dobby Bragg. Read more »
Between reviews I'd been accumulating, things I listened to for my best-of-2014 list, and a couple of comparisons I'd planned to make, there's enough for another review roundup before the close of the year. Note that the three that could fit into the reissue category -- Rilling, Berman, and the first 71 tracks of the lead review here -- would all have been on my best-classical-reissues-of-2014 list if I'd made one.
It was another year full of great classical music. Here are my favorites from 2014, new releases only, no reissues.
Long before John Belushi mugged his spastic body movements and raspy vocals in an SNL parody, the Sheffield, England-born Joe Cocker was the voice that could sing any rock song and make it his own. His riveting performance at Woodstock, on the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour of 1970, and early solo albums made him an unlikely rock star in the US. Joe may have lost his battle with lung cancer, but his songs will live on. His Beatles' cover "With a Little Help from My Friends" remains one of my favorite songs by him. Rest in peace, Mr. Cocker.
Okay, so those of us who dig Dan Wilson's singing, songwriting, and playing know how incredibly talented he is. His first band, Trip Shakespeare, remains one of America's epic pop-rock outfits, even if they were always under the radar of mass consumer consumption. Then he went and outdid himself with his next band, Semisonic. "Closing Time" is a repeat offender on my iTunes repeat button. And if that wasn't enough -- cuz the guy's gotta pay the bills -- the Twin Cities native wrote hit songs for the Dixie Chicks, Adele, Dierks Bentley, even freakin' Taylor Swift. How I missed this song when it was released is anyone's guess. But here it is for all of you to enjoy on this chilly December weekend. Pick up his new solo CD, Love Without Fear, now.
During most of his life, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was best known as a pianist and composer. He only took up conducting through an odd set of circumstances. The premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 was seriously marred by the inept conducting of Glazunov, who was reputedly drunk. Not only did this impress on the young Rachmaninoff how crucial a good conductor was to the success of his music, the critical rejection of his First Symphony on the basis of that performance sent him into a depression and caused a mental block against composing. Read more »
Having given the history of the "New World" in Part I, it seems wise to preface Part II with some words about how the symphony is constructed. The movements are:
Unusually, every movement starts with an introduction. The first movement's is the most famous: starts with a striking slow introduction that establishes the current of nostalgia for, or homesickness for, the composer's native Bohemia. Another reminder of this comes with the famotus flute solo -- or does it? Some have remarked on its similarity to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," but this is not so much a quote as a paraphrase, so to speak; small bits of "Chariot" are elided into something new that mingles many flavors: African-America spiritual, yes, but also Native American music and Bohemian folk music, which share a pentatonic flavor. Read more »
Two music legends have passed on recently, Small Faces/Faces' keyboardist Ian McLagan and super session saxophonist Bobby Keys. Texas-born and bred Keys is best known for his work with The Rolling Stones. (As well as his hard-charging camaraderie with Keith Richards.) His honkin' can be heard on such Stones jukebox anthems as "Brown Sugar," "Happy," and "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" as well as John Lennon's hit single "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night". He also played with one of my favorite bands, Delaney & Bonnie as well as The Plastic Ono Band, Nilsson, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and many more. Last year I caught him in action with Bob Weir. Read more »
Ready to get on your good foot? "Get On The Floor" people! From the very tasty horn-and-vocal band New York Funk Exchange with the delicious vocals of Serena Fortier. From their must-listen, 14-track sophomore album This Is Your Brain On Funk. Perfect for those post Turkey day exercise workouts. Might even get Grandma and Grandpa out on the dance floor with this one.
Controversial composer Alfred Schnittke was born November 24, 1934 in the Soviet Union's Volga Republic, an ethnic German enclave. In his mid-thirties he pioneered a broadly eclectic style of composing that drew on many classical styles (even sometimes quoting familiar Beethoven or Bach works, among others) as well as the occasional foray into jazz and pop. By 1972 his experimentalism had earned the disapproval of the Soviet Composers Union (the Soviets also weren't enamored of his occasional expressions of religion, for that matter), but a number of esteemed musicians who had left Russia to live in the West supported his work and brought him an international reputation. His work was basically pessimistic in outlook, but its emotional impact, and the accessibility of some of the styles he drew on, nonetheless seduced many listeners.
The contradictions in Schnittke's style are laid out in his liner notes to the BIS recording of his Symphony No. 3: "I do not know whether or not the symphony will survive as a musical form. I very much hope that it will and I attempt to compose symphonies, although it is clear to me that logically it is pointless. The tensions of this form, which are based upon a tonal perception of space and on dynamic contrast, are paralyzed by the present material-technical point of view. Nevertheless there is hope: in art, the impossible has a chance of success whilst the certain is always deceptive and hopeless." That said, he could easily be considered the last great symphonist. Read more »
There's a personnel change for this jazz supergroup's fourth album: Donald Harrison replaces Craig Handy in the alto sax chair. Nothing against Handy, whose work I have always enjoyed, but that's an upgrade. I look forward to Harrison -- an excellent composer -- having a hand in the writing for the next Cookers album (though, who knows, he may not -- for some reason, this group has never featured even one of trumpet fixture Eddie Henderson's tunes). For the first time, here there are no tunes from non-members; the emphasis on modal post-bop is stronger than ever. Read more »
Dvořák (1841-1904), from Bohemia (at the time, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and later in Czechoslovakia) peppered his colorful, amiable music with folk rhythms. The Ninth, subtitled "From the New World" and inspired by and written during his time in the United States, is Dvořák’s most beloved symphony and contains both Bohemian and American influences. Prompted by the current exhibit of the work's original manuscript in New York City at the Bohemian National Hall, I have followed up my review of Jiří Bĕlohlávek's new Dvořák symphony cycle box set on Decca and his concert with the Czech Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall with a trawl through my collection of "New World" recordings, selectively augmented by streaming recordings available on Rdio.com.
There is much debate concerning the materials of the Ninth. The composer himself said that its middle movements were intended to depict scenes from Longfellow's narrative poem The Song of Hiawatha, of which Dvořák was a fan long before he came here to be director of the National Conservatory of Music in 1892-95. It was in New York City, though, that he was introduced to the sound of African-American music, particularly spirituals, which his assistant and protégé, Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), sang for him (songs Burleigh had learned from his grandfather, an ex-slave). Dvořák also spent the summer of 1893 living in Iowa, where he got to hear Native American music. The overlap between these two styles is the pentatonic scale, which figures in the "New World," though he stressed that he had not quoted any of this material, just embodied its feeling. It has also been said, though not by him, that part of the work's inspiration was probably homesickness for Bohemia. There is no reason why it can't be both, just as the American-inspired aspects of the symphony sit alongside obviously Bohemian elements. Read more »
One of my favorite Simon & Garfunkel songs -- "America" -- gets a loving homage by one of my favorite Americana acts, the Swedish duo First Aid Kit. This is the title track from their exclusive Record Store Day 10" vinyl EP. This also collects an unreleased tune called "Brother," and acoustic versions of Stay Gold album tracks "My Silver Lining" and "Stay Gold". America will be available on Black Friday, November 28th at participating indie record all over this country.