Mix 2008

cimg1572Every year at this time, I make a mix disc for family and friends of the best music released over the past 12 months.  This year I’m sharing it with Local Rhythms readers.

Usually it’s a top ten, but there was so much good stuff in 2008, it’s been expanded to 15.

More proof that while the business is hurting, music is fine.

Here’s another thing worth pondering.  Despite all the talk about the death of the long-playing record, the majority of these songs were picked from well-rounded albums.

So, without further ado, my 2008 mix:

Delivered, Mark Erelli – The title song from my favorite album of 2008.  Mark Erelli changed up everything from his studio band to the record-making process itself, enlisting his fans for a “barn raising” to fund the project.  Then he made amazing music about impermeable things – family, commitment and faith in the future. “Love will remain,” sings Mark, “this you cannot change.”

River Grace, Jenee Halstead – This eastern Washington transplant was my discovery of the year. Jenee (pronounced like “Renee”) has a honey-throated voice and the storytelling ability of a soul well beyond her years.  Don’t miss her upcoming appearance at Boccelli’s. This, the title cut from her debut album, is a gem among many.

The Only Wicked Thing, Greg Copeland – Catching up with the performer, who made one record in 1982 and disappeared, was one of the joys of my year.  This song imagines Hank Williams’ last night on earth.  The album it comes from, “Diana and James,” is earthy and brilliant.

Babylon Is Falling, Pariah Beat – I’ve been scratching my head since first hearing this Upper Valley collective, trying to find a way to describe their music.  How about – Klezmericana?

Where Were You, Jackson Browne – This song is an historical document of the failure to respond in the wake of devastation, rendered with Browne’s trademark quiet rage.

Fan The Fury, Aloud – This Boston band rages, but there’s nothing quiet about them. This pointed song put to rest any questions about 2008 being an election year.

Since The Day, Stonewall – I’ve been listening to rough mixes of these songs for a long time, so it was gratifying to greet the release of my favorite power trio’s debut album, “What If?”

That’s The Way It Goes, Open Case/Breadtruck Productions – A great song full of infectious hooks that I can’t get out of my head.  This hip-hop outfit and I had a lively discussion about the genre, and I wound up being impressed by their “Rap the Vote” live show.

Strawberry Street, Lili Haydn – It was hard to pick a top song from this wonderful fusion of pop, rock and jazz.  The title cut, “Place Between Places,” is hypnotic while her re-make of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” shows why Lili’s called the Jimi Hendrix of the electric violin.

One Bite Won’t Kill You, Dr. Burma – Without a doubt, my favorite guilty pleasure is 70’s horn bands.  It doesn’t matter how obscure, I love ‘em all (does anybody remember Lighthouse?).  Dr. Burma brings it all back with their first studio album, and the title cut is the best of the lot.

Last Radio, Oneside – Banjo fury fuels this danceable ode to a dying art form.  This is one of many great tracks from this Boston-based band’s most recent collection.

Hallelujah, Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors – One of the few “singles” on my list, only because I haven’t yet had a chance to hear the album it came from.  This celebration of the music life arrived as part of a Paste magazine sampler.

The Longer I Run, Peter Bradley Adams – A lovely balance of longing and regret, I’ve been humming this song like a prayer of late.

America (Enough), Meg Hutchinson – Too much of something tends to become its opposite – “if there’s crowd enough, it turns back to solitude.”  Hutchinson is Thoreau with a guitar, possessing a knack for finding meaning many strange and beautiful places.

Yes We Can, will.i.am et.al. – A speech set to music that in many ways reflected the mood of the country during this turbulent year – recorded in New Hampshire, no less.

Tracy Chapman – Our Bright Future

chapmanbrightfutureTracy Chapman walks away from a fork in the road on the cover of her new album.  Whether she’s merging onto a main path, or simply fleeing a choice she’d rather not make is a good question.

It’s also a perfect metaphor for the many conflicts explored in this work. Though issues of faith, family and fidelity are never quite resolved, Chapman’s inner turmoil ends up paying terrific artistic dividends.

“Our Bright Future” is an impressive if downbeat work, marking 20 years since “Fast Car” won the attention of a nation of new folk fans.  Chapman appears wistful for past times on the record’s opening cut, recalling when she “knew all the words to the popular songs/with the radio on full volume … I used to sing for you.”

The singer/songwriter used two different sets of musicians for the project, a stable of seasoned session players like Steve Gadd and Dean Parks, along with some younger L.A. hotshots like Joey Waronker and Carla Kihlstedt. The elements blend quite well thanks to the steady hand of producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Vienna Teng).

The anti-war title cut seems at first a story of shattered idealism and betrayal. “Our bright future is in our past,” laments Chapman.  But she holds out hope in the song’s coda that, with new leaders,  “our bright future may come to pass” after all.

There’s a lot of wishing in vain, whether it’s trying and failing to move past a family tragedy
(“Alright For A Dream”) or, on “First Person On Earth,” romantic apocalypse:

“After the earthquakes the hurricanes
The fires and floods
I’m jaded cynical angry and glum
The worlds too absurd and obscene
For true love”

For every respite like the playful “I Did It All” there’s a darkening sky. On the bluesy romp “Thinking of You,” Chapman hits a cynical note, dismissing youth as a time of getting “an honest answer when a lie would do,” and finally concluding:

“I used to think
Galileo would agree
That the world was round
And you’d come round to me
But I have looked for you
And you’re nowhere in sight
The world must be flat
The Babylonians were right”

Chapman lays her battered, torn beliefs out starkly on the neo-gospel “Save Us All.” “I know Jesus loves me,” she proclaims with fervor. “My God is a mighty big God,” she continues, but then descends into doubt, ending on this dour note:  “If pride goeth before the fall/I hope someone’s God will save us all.”

Overall, “Our Bright Future” is a great listen – just don’t listen too closely.

Mavis Staples – Hope At The Hideout

mavisliveAlong with her fellow family members in the Staples Singers, Mavis Staples provided a soundtrack for the American civil rights movement, something she refers to simply as “The Struggle”.  So it’s fitting that Staples would release the stunning live collection “Hope At The Hideout” on November 4, the day the United States elected its first African-American President.

Working in front of an intimate crowd in her hometown of Chicago, the 69-year old singer brings ferocious energy to protest songs and spiritual standards.

Much of the material is drawn from the 2007’s Ry Cooder-produced “We’ll Never Turn Back,” but it’s more raw and immediate in this setting, with the audience behaving less like patrons in a club than parishioners in pews.

She leads off with a growling rendition of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” and never lets up from there.

Highlights include J.B. Lenoir’s swampy “Down In Mississippi,” given a powerful autobiographical touch with Staples’ story of colored-only water fountains.  On “Wade In The Water” guitarist Rick Holmstrom channels John Fogerty while Mavis leads the group, which includes her sister Yvonne, in a rousing call-and-response.

There’s a sense of living history throughout, but never more so than three songs at the record’s center, offered in sequence.  She brings the same fierce determination to “Why Am I Treated So Bad” that Pops Staples did when he wrote it in response to a Martin Luther King sermon.  “Freedom Highway” brims with hope and optimism; on “We Shall Not Be Moved,” Staples recounts a confrontation at a southern lunch counter a mere 45 years ago.

After performing a rousing encore of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” Staples isn’t ready to leave the stage, so she launches into an equally spirited “On My Way”.  The audience’s energy level acts like an extra instrument, as shouts and whoops of joy punctuate her (as one writer so vividly put it) “honey and grits” voice .  Unwilling to let the night end, she finishes with “I’ll Take You There,” one of her biggest Staples Singers hits.

“I’ve had such a good time, “ she finally thanks the crowd.  “I’m home – so I guess I’ll come back tomorrow night.”  You’ll probably do the same, and let this inspiring live album go immediately for a second spin.

Jackson Browne – “Time The Conqueror”

Wearing sunglasses and sporting a grey beard, Jackson Browne stares out like a soft rock Unabomber from the cover of his new album, “Time The Conqueror.”  The name perhaps refers to the toll on his mind and body over 60 years.

“Time may heal all wounds, but time will steal you blind,” Browne sings on the title track leading off his 13th album of new material, the first since 2002’s “Naked Ride Home.”

But given the often too-literal content of “Time the Conqueror,” and his penchant for double meaning, it could also mean that age has compelled Browne to vanquish all urges to conceal his strong opinions, or for that matter, adorn them in any way.

“I’m gonna go down singing,” Browne intones on “Giving That Heaven Away,” as he grouses that it’s become his job “to show the whole world how to rebel.”

“Seems like the whole world’s at a fire sale,” he muses – and that’s during one of the happier songs on the record.

Browne is no stranger to mixing politics and music, but “Lives In The Balance” and “World in Motion,” his two most pointed albums prior to “Time the Conqueror,” were at least a little poetic, and punctuated with a few love songs.

This time around, he’s seething – and naming names.

On “The Drums of War,” he sounds more like a talk show guest than a songwriter.  “Where are the courts now when we need them?” sings Browne.  “Why is impeachment not on the table? We better stop them while we are able.”

“Where Were You,” a 10 minute indictment of the government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, and how it reflects on America’s national character, might be the angriest song anyone’s written since Neil Young rush-released “Living With War.”

The song, a percolating blues number tweaked with synthesizers and sampling, lays out the charges in a way that recalls Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre”:

“Where were you in the social order?
The Lower Nine or a hotel in the Quarter
Which side of the border between rich and poor?”

It’s all there – the horror in the Superdome, failed attempts to move from the convention center to higher ground, “the newborn and the elderly exposed to even more misery” and National Guard soldiers arriving five days late.

“Mainly they were used to keep the looting down,” laments Browne.

The song works, however, because it’s more than just a list of accusations.  After a snarling reminder of President’s Bush fly-by photo op (“shaved face, rested eyes, looking down he circles twice/on his way home from his vacation”), Browne turns the camera around.

“Where were you,” he sings, “when you got the picture?”

His rage never quite ebbs, even during the easygoing, mojito and gardenia soaked “Going Down To Cuba.”  He trips from visions of walking on a beach, “in one hand a Montecristo/in the other an ice cream cone,” to discussing the embargo, and reminding listeners that, whatever their faults, Cubans “do know what to do in a hurricane.”

It’s hard to believe that the same person who wrote “Late For the Sky” would include a line like “they make such continuous use of the verb ‘to resolve’” in a song, but there it is.

The record has a few nostalgic moments, including “Off Of Wonderland,” which name checks RFK and Martin Luther King, and recalls Browne’s days living in Laurel Canyon “with an unknown band” (presumably the Eagles), his ideals still intact.  “Giving That Heaven Away” finds him “still looking around for that Sixties sound,” even though he knows “those days are gone.”

“Just Say Yeah” is a more typical Jackson Browne love song, with lines like “it’s hard to tell where the relating leaves off and where love begins,” but it’s a small oasis in an otherwise hard and strident effort.

Though it will no doubt speak well to fellow travelers, it’s doubtful that “Time The Conqueror” will win Jackson Browne many new fans.

Maybe time conquered his need for those as well.

Oneside – First, To Last

A hoedown mood opens Oneside’s new album, signaling a shift away from the country jazz permeating their earlier work.  New banjo player Chris Hersch picks out a spare figure, backed only by Ned deBary’s delicate acoustic guitar, then handclaps.  The singer begins, and a kick drum roughs up “The Letter,” the first track on the Boston-based band’s new CD, “First, To Last.”

Then, as deBary wryly sings, “don’t tell me I’m going down the wrong path,” there’s a crackle of snare from drummer Jake Brooks, and the song is off and running.  Within the short space of four minutes, Oneside moves across time, beginning at Cold Mountain and ending at the Moondog Show.

Oneside covers a lot of musical ground in “First, To Last.”  “Oh Sun” is a spiritualized Americana rave-up, while a reworked “Got To Go” (the song appeared on an earlier EP) is a pure slice of country pie.  “Lisa” suggests that someone in this band listened to a lot of Gram Parsons at one time or another.  Since the entire band is given songwriting credit for each of the album’s 11 songs, it’s hard to know just who.

Anyone who says the long player is dead should listen to this, and think again.  Apart from one desultory instrumental (“Four Corners”), there’s not a wasted moment here.  Standout tracks include the jazzy “Out of My Tree” and “Josephine,” a roiling murder ballad that’s evocative of Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider.”

The band produced itself, and they show off their studio talents on  “Into the Night,” which starts small and ends big. “Our Song” is a guardedly optimistic ode to the musician’s life.  The interplay between the four band members – deBary, Hersch, Brooks and bassist Grafton Pease, is stunning.  No one element dominates, and what results is a gorgeous balance of flourish and restraint.  “Feel the song from both sides,” sings DeBary, and indeed they do.

The record’s tour de force is “Last Radio,” a darker look at the musical profession. The song metaphorically buries what’s left of the business, and waits to see what grows.

“Put your ear to the ground,” they sing, “listen a million miles down, hear a brand new sound, melodies escaping.”  As the Band and the Grateful Dead did, along with their modern disciples Wilco and Son Volt, Oneside is setting out to mine the deep.

Like those bands, they’ve burned their maps and manuals, preferring to work on instinct.

Or perhaps a better analogy can be found in the kitchen, where the trick is reconstructing familiar ingredients in new, inventive ways. Oneside has stepped away from being Bela Fleck acolytes to charting a different course.  With this effort, Oneside distills a long American musical history into its pure essence.

Oneside plays Friday at Salt hill Pub in Lebanon.  Show starts at 9 PM.

Scott Ainslie – “Thunder’s Mouth”

10 days after the September 11 attacks, Bruce Springsteen opened a nationally televised benefit show with “My City of Ruins,” a song that could have been a direct response to the tragedy – if it weren’t more than a year old.

Scott Ainslie’s “It’s Gonna Rain,” the centerpiece of his new collection of originals, blues standards and a tasty Tom Waits tune, seems no less prophetic. Written several weeks before Hurricane Katrina, its tableau of a man tripping over “beer bottles and broken Mardi Gras beads” while he wanders the swamped city searching for a lost lover, is a perfect allegory for the days that followed the disaster.

Another artist might have been tempted to tinker with it, but Ainslie didn’t change a word, as the world intersected with art to transform a story of broken love into the tale of a broken city.

Ainslie is blues authority with a political bent, and his selection of cover songs reflects this. “Down In Mississippi,” written in the 1960s by J. B. Lenoir in response to Southern racial injustice, is given just the right balance of pain and rage.

He plays “Dust My Broom” (an obvious selection for Ainslie, the author of a Robert Johnson biography) on a vintage 1931 national. The a capella version of Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face” shares an edgy, unadorned sound with many of the album’s non-originals.

Including “It’s Gonna Rain,” Ainslie wrote four of the album’s 10 songs. The title track is a haunting denunciation of slavery, helped by Eugene Friesen’s moaning cello and Sam Broussard’s knife-edged guitar work. “If Anybody Asks About Me” and “I Should Get Over This” are both laced with evocative African textures, sounding of the same vintage as “Another Man Done Gone,” a lovely, sad Vera Hall blues song that Ainslie learned from a John Avery Lomax field recording.

Ainslie recruited a top-pedigree lineup for “Thunder’s Mouth.” In addition to Friesen (Paul Winter Consort) and Broussard (Michael Martin Murphey, Jimmy Buffett, Steve Riley), SNL Band veteran T-Bone Wolk played accordion, keyboards, guitars and percussion along with his regular bass guitar.

Wolk uses the latter to great effect on “Little Trip To Heaven,” a song that will delight anyone who’s impatient with Tom Waits’ gravelly singing style. Ainslie cleans it up nicely, revealing a romantic side of the curmudgeonly songwriter.

“Thunder’s Mouth” is a sturdy record, powerful both as homage and history. But most of all, it reveals a talented tunesmith shaping his unique vision to deep musical roots.

Aloud – Fan the Fury

The second album from Boston quartet Aloud gives fans of hard-edged harmony plenty to sink their teeth into. As the title suggests, it’s packed with twentysomething rage, but it also brims with flourishes and crescendos.

“Sometimes I Feel Like A Vampire” establishes the record’s mood early on. “I can’t smile with a straight face,” sings Henry Beguiristain, “let’s go on the offensive.” Beguiristain told an interviewer recently that with “Fan the Fury,” Aloud was aiming for something that people would either love or hate.

They succeeded.

There’s not much middle ground, and that’s a good thing. “Fan the Fury” is an election year record. “Nero” laments that “a witch hunt or inquisition can be disguised as patriotism” while the title cut is a hard-charging anthem that blends tart, bruised youth lyrics (“there’s a burning in my belly, in my wallet, and my head”) with wall of sound production from Chuck Brody (Northern State, Yoko Ono).

Even seemingly tender songs show their teeth. The two lovers of “Hard Up in the 2000’s” gaze into each other’s eyes because they’re too poor to do anything else. Beguiristain and Jen de la Oso, who’ve been writing together since high school, contributed all of the lyrics, with the music credited to the entire band. Sentimentality is for fools in this here and now, they seem to be saying. If anything, as one of the record’s more frenetic songs puts it, it’s the “Battle of Love.”

“Julie,” “The Last Time” and “Back to the Wall” are dominated by Beguiristain and de la Osa’s world-weary vocals, reminiscent of the John Doe/Exene Cervenka’s tandem in X. But for all the raw punk energy infusing the music, it’s really all about the hooks.

After all, you can’t start a revolution without a memorable chorus. You’ll find yourself singing along by the second verse of half the album’s songs. “You Got Me Wrong” borrows the syncopated hand clapping of the Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” but still manages to find its own bright, jangly soul. “Murder Will Out” is similarly infectious, both for the U2/Slash guitar sampling and de la Osa’s throaty singing.

Inventive tempo changes and quirky word play keep “Fan The Fury” from simply becoming another power pop record. The band plays with more purpose than it did on “Leave Your Light On,” their 2006 debut. Their energy more than matches their live shows, something area fans can witness for themselves when Aloud travels to the Upper Valley later this summer.

The Sophomore Class – KT Tunstall, James Blunt

Two standout singer/songwriters from across the pond have just released their second efforts:  KT Tunstall’s “Drastic Fantastic” and James Blunt’s “All the Lost Souls.”   Tunstall shifts slightly away from the percussive one-girl band tricks that marked her debut “Under the Telescope.”  Blunt sports a fuller sound than 2005’s “Back to Bedlam,” all the while channeling his inner Bee Gee.  Of the two, Tunstall’s is the most winning.

For this go-round, KT Tunstall wraps her capacious voice around a rugged pop sound.  On the rollicking “Funnyman,” and the soulful “Saving My Face,” she positively soars.  “Hold On” most closely resembles her biggest hit to date, “Black Horse and Cherry Tree,” but it’s the quieter moments of “Drastic Fantastic” that tantalize most, and mark Tunstall as an artist with a chance to inhabit radios (and iPods) for years down the road. 

“White Bird” gently draws the dichotomy of purity and street wisdom into “a land where they both meet,” while “Beauty of Uncertainty” is sure to draw comparisons to Stevie Nicks.  But it’s better than that – like Nicks, Tunstall’s singing is smooth and supple, but with more leather than lace.

The countrified “Hopeless” is fueled nicely by Roger McGuinn-inspired 12-string guitar, while “I Don’t Want You Now” opens like an early Elvis Costello song without the sneer, but no less certain sentiments. 

“Someday Soon” best captures the disc’s spirit, splitting the difference between pensive ballad and buoyant pop.  With this release, KT Tunstall hits an elusive target for most artists – a sophomore release that surpasses her debut.

If only the same could be said for James Blunt.  “Here we go again,” he sings on the leadoff track, “1973.”  Too much of “All the Lost Souls” is fixated on that decade, decked out in Elton John kitsch.  The surviving Gibb brothers might consider suing him over “One of the Brightest Stars” – consciously or not, its melody is a note for note plagiarizing of “Now and Then,” from 1975’s “Main Course”.   

Blunt also subtly pilfers George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” guitar figure for “Same Mistake” – ironic considering what George went through with “He’s So Fine.”

“Carry You Home” is closer to the syrupy formula that catapulted Blunt to chart heights.  Depending on your tastes, that could be a good or a bad thing. In 2005, “You’re Beautiful” stuck to brains like kudzu to Georgia garden walls.  Some (this writer included) have yet to forgive him for that. 

OK, the record’s not all bad.  The protagonist of “I Really Want You” simmers with rage, a vivid portrait of post-traumatic stress stripped raw.  An acoustic version of “1973” is included as a bonus cut on some versions. Its’ economy brings nuance to everything that’s overwrought about the album version. 

It’s sad that the rest of “All the Lost Souls” isn’t as restrained.

Kelly Willis – Translated From Love

willis.jpgToo tired from raising three children to write original music, Kelly Willis entered the studio ready to record cover tunes.  Gratefully, she found her muse with collaborator/producer Chuck Prophet.  Willis’s first new album in five years is also her best.  At turns sly, clever, upbeat and sweet, “Translated From Love” pairs her honey-throated warble with a range of influences and co-writers.

Iggy Pop’s “Success” has an organ riff lifted straight from “96 Tears,” while “Teddy Boys” reverses genders, but stays true to its rockabilly roots.  Another good rave-up, “Nobody Wants To Go To The Moon,” is musically lean and lyrically limber.  There’s a nice balance of tempos; the beautiful waltz “Stone’s Throw Away” and “Too Much To Lose,” an ode to the challenges of married life sung with husband Bruce Robison, are particular standouts.

The record’s universality is part of its’ charm; the gently loping “Sweet Little One” could be about a child or a lover. The same could be said for “The More That I’m Around You,” a harmony-rich rocker with a very un-country dose of keyboards.

Kelly Willis has flown under the radar for some time.  “Translated from Love” has the potential to change that – if family life doesn’t get in the way.

Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem – Big Old Life

raniarbo.jpgThis is an ear-to-ear grin of a record, full of joy and the counting of blessings. “Raise your cup to another day,” sings bandleader Arbo on the title cut, an obvious nod to her recent battle with breast cancer. But it would be too easy to sum up the record’s buoyant mood as a simple paean to beating disease. “Big Old Life” is about surviving and thriving.

There’s nary a downbeat moment here. The hymn-like “Joy Comes Back” opens the disc and sets the tone. Equally spiritual is “Roses,” another Arbo original which describes the satisfaction of doing one thing well; it’s also a showcase for the band’s gorgeous harmonizing and spare, attentive playing.

This is a well-balanced effort, with an even mix of originals and covers. Leonard Cohen’s “Heart With No Companion” and band member Anand Nayak’s original “What’s That” touch on death’s mysteries. “Oil In My Vessel” serves up a gumbo of folk traditions; there are at least four different songs tossed together here (it’s credited to one Joe Thompson), and who knew “Amazing Grace” could sound any happier?

“Farewell Angelina” is an interesting choice for a Bob Dylan cover (“the sky is erupting/I must go where it’s quiet”), but its hootenanny tempo is light years removed from the original. “There’ll be time enough for darkness when everything’s gone,” Arbo sings over a melancholy beat on the album’s closer, a cover of Daisy May Erlewine’s “Shine On.”

That’s the message of “Big Old Life” – shake the demons from the dark moments and dance joyfully into the light.