Thursday, December 28, 2006

Salt air

Saved on the ocean
Image: Saved on the ocean, Rikard Land

The Ocean Always Wins - She's Spanish, I'm American

If you can get past the name, you're in. Unlike jolly band of Swedes, I'm From Barcelona, "She" actually is Spanish and "I" really is American. (Try harder next time guys, please!) I is also Josh Rouse, duo-projecting with girlfriend Paz Suay, a singer of somewhat limited vocal range but considerable saucy charm. Pop songs are often about romantic leaps of faith, facing fears (can I trust him? will she break my heart?), and the sea isn't an uncommon metaphor for the vast, gray inscrutable core of another or a measure for immeasurable feeling. "Ocean" is a little more literal. Over balmy salsa rhythms and airy la la las, a woman shivers on the pier and offers her sheepish thalassophobia (or is it philophobia?) to the sea:

I probably should have waited longer
We probably shouldn't take this trip
But I love him and I want to go
So I won't give in.

As verse climbs on verse and mundane Mediterranean cruise turns into nightmare realized, the sweet refrain is stolen by the Sirens-perched-on-rocks, and instinct, foreboding, fate -- primitive evolutionary remnants -- reassert themselves. But you're too busy soft-stepping, hip-swaying to notice as sea swallows shoulder, then arm, then fingertip on the distant vista. Not waving, as it goes, but drowning.

From She's Spanish, I'm American EP (eMusic, iTunes)
SSIA's Myspace

Beyond The Sea (La Mer) - Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt's rendition of "Beyond The Sea" is a New Year's party in its waning hours. The embers of the evening. Crushed paper hat, cracked glass, torn dress, scuffed shoe, careless joke. Still tipsy after the drunk has rubbed off. But smiling to itself in anticipation. Of hard-earned sleep. Of a number scribbled on scrap and a call to be made, cautiously, tomorrow (today). Of the new year, thick and unreadable. As the band starts its slow putting away and packing up, morning cracks drapes and splays its rays across the cold dancefloor.

From Djangology (Amazon, iTunes)

Oh, and a cute story! I gave my niece a child's size acoustic guitar for Christmas. After I did a very poor job of tuning it (without benefit of piano or tuner, mind) and she performed a little strumming and picking, my niece said, "Aunt Amy, did I ever tell you that I've always wanted a guitar? "Always," I asked, "your whole life?" "My whole life," she nodded solemnly. My niece is all of six.

And a book recommendation. If you're like me, you refuse to do any heavy mental lifting around the holidays. (Also, you like detective fiction.) George Pelecanos' The Night Gardener kept me well entertained during the several-hour wait for a flight Christmas evening. I mentally edit almost everything I read. Not this lean, muscular book. Pelecanos has a rare gift for spare storytelling and precise, nuanced dialogue. An absolute pleasure.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

2006: Favorite albums

Ys, Joanna Newsom

This isn't what I expected at the beginning of 2006 either. But isn't it wonderful when music surprises you? And I think it says something (and I don't want to draw any hasty conclusions) that my top two are five-track song suites. Other than that, no trends to speak of. Just good music, I hope. I rearranged the room til the last minute, which unfortunately required some additional writing. So if everything isn't perfectly feng shuied, rest assured that I'll sweep through later and straighten up.

10. Writer's Block - Peter, Bjorn & John

I knew I'd forget something on my
songs list. Somehow between drafts, PB&J's "The Chills" -- a rumble of drums and inky organ lines -- slipped off. (The song earns extra credit for paying bright homage to the bleak "Pink Frost," one of my all-time favorites.) But that's okay. I tried not to do too much piecing when it came to albums that are all-around amazing. And Writer's Block, a box of cereal packed tight with toy prizes (and maybe a few of those colored marshmallows), is certainly that. There's very little assembly required, either; these pop treasures come readymade and impossible not to play to death.

The Chills


9. Water Everywhere, Big Buildings

Big Buildings doesn't have much use for the indie scene, I betcha. And that's a significant chunk of its charm. A big ol' Midwestern no-worries shrug, Water Everywhere masks its efficient songwriting behind sloppy riffs, loping basslines and ragged harmonies, veering between mournful beer bawls ("Other Days") and brisk, night-out chugs ("Submarine" and "Grease Fire") -- most of which owe prodigious debt (though not to the extent actual intellectual property claims might be asserted) to the Replacements. This album came out of nowhere for me and bears little resemblance to my usual listening habits. But it's easily my favorite local (Chicago) LP this year. It totally rocks.


Amp Camp, iTunes)

8. Words Are Dead, Horse Feathers

The first time I wrote about this album, I talked about it's interior design (neat, uncluttered, warm), its personality (smart, earthy, modest), its poetry (spare, telegraphic). On further consideration (listening to it lots in early autumn, tucking it away, returning in December and loving it even more), I'd also like to mention a little about its motion. You know, the way its moves. "Falling Through the Roof," my favorite song, begins with a long stretch -- fingers brush the sky, toes burrow in the earth -- then, a slow stalk, tense and gingerly through thick underbrush, a helmet of trees leaking occasional sneaks of sun. "Dustbowl" is different. Fleet-footed, sprightly, propelled by hops and twirls, leaps and then, weary lopes. Both modes work.


Amazon, eMusic)

7. Lanzafame, Tap Tap

If you're one of the couple dozen who received a mix CD from me in the past six months (I'm a mixaholic), you've been performing behind-the-wheel shoulder jigs, under-desk toe-tap parades or, if in the privacy of your home with the blinds drawn, out-and-out full-body boogies to one of three songs: "Off The Beaten Track," "To Our Continuing Friendship," or "On My Way." So this is just like old news to you: Tap Tap is absurdly, criminally fun! The new news if you don't already own this album? Almost all of it is as good as those three songs. Dismiss Tap Tap as this year's Clap Your Hands Say Wolf Parade or crow about nine a nickel indie boys tossing words like hot rutabagas over three giddy chords and a ham-fist of moto-beats. If that's how you feel, how you really feel, I can only assume you like being miserable.

Off The Beaten Track


6. Colour Green, Sibylle Baier

Between the pages of a thick-thumbed cookbook, you might find these loose drawings, hastily folded and hidden. One, a sweater with a half-drawn sleeve, another, a cat curled tight as a loaf of bread. And here, here, here, a half-drunk glass of wine, a book of poetry, a battered acoustic guitar. In her dusky alto, Sibylle Baier sings sketches of domesticity -- of confiding spouses and trips to the zoo and conflicts lovingly resolved. And she offers light whimsies in the form of fan letters to T.S. Eliot and Wim Wenders. But this bare, acoustic album, home recorded between 1970 and 1973, isn't always so easily drawn and defined. Longing, searching car songs are streaked with melancholy. Sometimes the road runs to renewal. In "Remember The Day," an unwelcome trip to the market morphs into a voyage of discovery. Baier sings "I found me on the road to Genoa" and her guitar blooms, her voice flushes and she describes the sea and "all that was good." Other times, the landscape rolls with dread and resignation, haunted by an uneasy trade -- ambition for duty. An initially simple record, Colour Green can be very complex. I find that where I am determines whether I hear the bitter or the sweet.

I Lost Something In The Hills

(Amazon, eMusic)

5. Derdang Derdang, The Archie Bronson Outfit

When Archie Bronson Outfit's brazen "Dart For My Sweetheart" single swaggered through the coffeehouse doors in big black boots this past spring, I was receptive. There's only so much Sufjan-style indie pop passive-aggression a girl can take. Sometimes you just don't want to be BSed, and ABO's laddish wolfwhistle, lager-girded bravado and smirky schtick is charmingly refreshing. Plus, as
I said earlier, "Dart's" an undeniable hip-shaker. Derdang Derdang surprised me by living up to that song's promise. These boys aren't the most inventive songsmiths: They repurpose brickle-chip guitar sounds, classic blues progressions and mathematically precise drum patterns (the intro to "Dart" and "Dead Funny" are almost identical and not dissimilar to "How I Sang Dang's") throughout with little editing. Distortion pedals are deployed with impunity. But if ABO only has a song or two, they're killer.

Dart For My Sweetheart

Amazon, iTunes)

4. Silent Shout, The Knife

Much of my youth was misspent on synth pop. So I know a thing or two about the cold music of technology as proxy for warm-bodied emotions. But honestly, I don't remember Blancmange or even Ultravox being this consistent or profound. Those kinds of long-players tended to bunch and sag around one or two very good, if typically overwrought, singles. And a lot of contemporary dance albums with eyes on the clubs (as it should be) suffer the same issues. Silent Shout has some standout songs alright -- the title track, "We Share Our Mother's Health," "Marble House" and maybe even "Forest Families" are unassailable, slate solid classics of glacial grace and withering pathos. But as much as my heart skips a tiny beat in sympathy every time I hear that initial boom boom boom of "Silent Shout," it's the sinewy joints, the connecting tissue around the vital organs that make Shout such an essential record. The way a single, eerily rising note in "Still Light" or the radiological half-life of "The Captain's" long intro remind me that silence can be as rich and rewarding as noise.

Search Hype Machine for tracks.

(Amazon, iTunes)

3. Palo Santo, Shearwater

I find that most live shows -- from the disappointing to the astonishing -- tell me little about the album they're ostensibly supporting. It's just an entirely different experience. But seeing Shearwater this past summer in a one-third filled room on a holiday weekend when the city had cleaned out, reframed Palo Santo for me in crucial ways. People tend to focus on the pretty with this band. And God, Shearwater's songs can be ridiculously beautiful. But with his close-clipped crew cut and steely eye, his hand hammering, Meiberg told me that those lovely rippling songs were also fierce and ferocious, that his choir-boy croon hid a mean growl. "The walls came down, it was a fucking disaster" Meiberg spits in "Red Sea, Black Sea," as urgent as the angriest punk (better heard, to be fair, in the original, "Turn Your Transmitters Off" demo). And it is, it is a FUCKING DISASTER -- a tsunami, a Katrina, a house fire that infects adjacent buildings and engulfs a neighborhood. Then there's the "wild and unbroken" cataclysm of noise that closes "Hail Mary," calm sliding into chaos. Loud/soft dynamics are one of the oldest tricks in the book of indie rock, but I'll be damned if I can think of a record that's done it better, or more movingly, lately.

Hail Mary

(Amazon, eMusic)

2. The Complete Guide To Insufficiency, David Thomas Broughton

This is a total cheat. The Complete Guide To Insufficiency was officially released in the middle of December last year. But I don't think much of anyone heard it until 2006, if they heard it at all. Which is too bad. As much as I love polish, production values and meticulously blueprinted details (see #1 on this list), I love equally the music of chance. And Insufficiency performs both kinds of chance, accident and risk -- the flubs and fortunes of a single-take recording and the high-wire walk of the unapologetically weird. Broughton's voice is wonderful -- a rangy, register-jumping instrument that's as authentic in its blues moans as its falsetto sighs. But human in its frailty. Just under a minute of "Ever Rotating Sky," he changes keys (on the second syllable of "delight"), reaches for a high note and misses. Errors abound. A miracle of bells come clanging through the roof at the end of "Unmarked Grave" (apparently Broughton didn't know the Leeds church where he recorded these songs had scheduled them). And loop pedalled echoes used to round out lone voice and guitar are almost always a heavy half-beat behind. What's risky? Everything. I hesitate to draw on the troublesome outsider art term, but these id-driven confessionals are a tad touched. Peopled with nightshade eaters, ghosts, cannibals and guys who declare their love by promising not to (literally) shit on their girlfriends or take them to live sex shows, it's the below and between, the demimonde of liminality. Sounds ludicrous, I know. But I can find no other way to express how touching it is, except to say, listen.

Ever Rotating Sky

Amazon, eMusic)

1. Ys, Joanna Newsom

My conversion narrative began as August leaked into September, and Ys spilled all over the Internet. If I'd thought of Joanna Newsom at all before then, it was as that precious, screechy voiced harp-slinger who hung with the unwashed crowd. I was not a fan and she did not speak to me. No blinding lights or seizing of hearts, though. Just seduction by agile verse and melodies that wrap themselves like whisper-weight cashmere shawls. A luxury then, this record. I'll try to temper my superlatives, but you know how the newly converted are: eager to proselytize, impervious to criticism.

Jon and I were chatting about how it's pretty hard to evaluate orchestral arrangements such as Van Dyke Parks' if you're not a musician (I don't think Jon is sold on Ys -- at least not when we last spoke). To these classically untrained ears, they sound sympathetic and only occasionally disconnected from Newsom's harp base. But with a long, voracious reading habit, a reasonably rigorous education in interpretation and some experience writing the stuff, I suppose I can speak confidently about Newsom's verse. Her command of sound as sense, her empathy for the way words flower and throb on the tongue or rub one another and spark, is almost unrivalled in popular music now, if not ever. (Bob Dylan, who's usually championed in this regard, is a very good poet, I'll admit. And there are certainly many hip-hop artists who know what they're doing with words. But none of that product means much to me personally.) I have a lot of examples, but this, from "Sawdust and Diamonds" is perhaps my favorite:

And the articulation in our elbows and knees
make us buckle;
we couple in endless increase.

Or, from "Only Skin":

Last week, our picture window
produced a half-word,
heavy and hollow
hit by a brown bird.
Then in my hot hand, she slumped her sick weight.
We tramped through the poison oak, heartbroke and inchoate.

Oh sure, I'm probably just biased because Newsom leans hard on some of my own preferred devices -- alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia. And always dangling is the very valid question of whether the music of the lyrics should upstage the, uh, music (this is one album where it's essential to own the physical copy for its thick volume of verse). But you know what? I don't care -- I love it anyway! And that's where blogger parts way with critic. I'd prefer to be a hard-nosed contrarian (I often am) and chuckle at the fools who fall for such an excruciatingly ambitious project and obvious ploy for adulation. But I can't. I like it too much to lie.

Hype Machine for tracks.

(Amazon, eMusic)

Twelve other records I really enjoyed in 2006 (unranked, but all well worth your pennies):

Precis, Benoit Pioulard (
Amazon, eMusic)
The Letting Go, Bonnie "Prince" Billy (
Amazon, iTunes)
Wind-Up Canary, Casey Dienel (
Amazon, eMusic)
Ships, Danielson (
Amazon, eMusic)
Transparent Things, Fugiya & Miyagi (
Amazon, iTunes)
Yellow House, Grizzly Bear (
Amazon, iTunes)
Drum's Not Dead, Liars (
Amazon, iTunes)
Food & Liquor, Lupe Fiasco (
Amazon, iTunes)
Stay Afraid, Parts and Labor (
Amazon, eMusic)
Are We Not Horses, Rock Central Plaza (
Amp Camp, eMusic)
Happy Days, Victor Scott (
eMusic, iTunes)
The Body The Blood The Machine, The Thermals (
Amazon, iTunes)

In case you missed it, my favorite 2006 songs list is here.

Edit: I'd really like to hear from some regular visitors for a change -- I know you're out there. Please drop a comment and let me know what your favorite albums were this year.

Monday, December 18, 2006

2006: Favorite songs

Here's where I try to say something about the songs I really liked in 2006. I could talk about skill and technical virtuosity, artistic ambition, ideological good intentions, recording quality, even originality (that obsolete concept). But basically, the list below is made up of songs that meant something to me -- for lots of reasons, often personal ones. Most aren't there simply because they're beautiful or thrilling (though they often are), but because they seized a mood the first (or third or tenth) time I heard them, tied red ribbons around my fingers for the people and places and events I didn't want to forget, completed mental puzzles I had begun with other songs or albums or books or films. They are songs that crawled and slithered, burrowed and lodged in my head and refused to budge. I've written a few thoughts on some of them.

I didn't rank my song list, but if you flash polled me as I type this, Bonnie "Prince" Billy's "Strange Form of Life" (mp3) might be the 2006 song I like best. I have a old and complicated relationship with Will Oldham. In 1994 as Palace, he made one my all-time favorite records, Days In The Wake, but he's also responsible for, in the late 90s, the worst, most self-indulgent live performance I've ever had the misfortune to experience (for about 15 minutes before I found the door). It wasn't until this year that I was fully prepared to forgive him for it, either. However, Oldham's long-running hillbilly project dovetailed with some of my major interests this year -- a class I took this fall on American ballads, readings on folk music and Appalachia, this film, this collection and thinking I've been doing on knotty issues of cultural representation and the stories Americans tell about themselves. Ok, but ultimately, this is not an intellectual exercise, right? I mean "Life" is great because it's a wide saucer of sweet nectar, a tender blend of male and female voices, layers of soft surging guitars and tiny tap of stick on surface, a sneaky, subtle thing of deep and mesmerizing beauty.

Not that it's always about aesthetic pleasure. The track I've listened to more than any other in the past 30 days is Burial's "Southern Comfort" (mp3) -- Southern as in South London, comfort as in not really comfortable at all. I suppose the electronica slicers-dicers call this dubstep (though it's as much a slab of garage or breakbeat as anything). What I hear are the mechanics and menace of urban environments, the rushing and then standing in place and waiting, the grind and groan of trains on tracks, the splash and sputter of gray puddles, disembodied shouts, sudden breaks of silence and ... again the onslaught of noise. I've lived in big cities my entire adult life and it reminds me that I don't really feel alive unless I'm also a little afraid.

"Daydreamin'" (mp3), from Lupe Fiasco, has a city story too, though Jill Scott's Betty Boop sighs, Lupe's nimble nerd rhymes and that ridiculous-sublime sample would be enough to recommend it. This song -- and the whole, very good album (I also would have included "Kick, Push" on the list if I weren't limiting it to one track from each artist) -- makes me think of the sunny Tuesday morning in September when I walked to the bus stop down the street in front of Lane Tech High School (the same institution where two of my great, great uncles taught architectural drawing almost 100 years ago) and discovered that the lightpoles and street signs had been papered with Food & Liquor ads overnight. And while I waited for the bus, how I watched a kid -- kind of a smaller boy -- try to scrape off a souvenir of this latest hometown hip-hop hero.

Speaking of heroes, God bless Vetiver's Andy Cabic. He saved me, saved everyone from expiration by way of boredom during Devendra Banhart's interminable drone of a Pitchfork Festival set this past summer when he took the stage and set it aflame with "You May Be Blue" (mp3). I already loved the song and its wide hippie grin and travelin' man vibe, more orange than blue, if you want to be chromatically honest. The drum, all driving anticipation, leads a pied-piper march, gesturing to organ, rhythm and lead guitars and voice, c'mon, shuffle in. Even if the song only travels in circles, it goes somewhere good.

I used to belong to the International Mixtape Project and in the summer of 2005 received a mix from a guy named Nick in Aberdeen, Scotland. Enclosed with his mix CD was a funny little Polaroid picture of a fence and some greenery, and in the lower left corner, the fuzzy wing of a crow. Nick had written beneath the image, Crow takes flight! We got to chatting via email and I learned he was in a band called Hookers Green No. 1. He sent me a copy of their first album and I posted about the band. This past spring, Nick sent me a new song, "Bloody Great Big Fucking Party" (mp3) and I confess, I didn't listen very carefully; I dropped the ball. Then I saw it posted on Said The Gramophone in June and I listened again, and it was, naturally, really great. If the song were American, it would be a college football game -- except fun and joyous. It would be devoid of bloody fucking football players and frat boys and teeming with cool kids stowing flasks full of absinthe.

If there's a single song that marks for me the direction this blog has been taking lately -- a turn toward musical memoir, for lack of a better term -- it's "Apple Orchard" (mp3) from Beach House. Its soft organ fuzz and spider silk guitar lines might be the soundtrack to the first couple of seasons after my parents bought a house with a miniature orchard and embarked on a grand, quixotic harvesting adventure, of pesticide spraying, pruning and picking. The picking! My brother and I were a child labor force -- an especially sulky and inept one. Most of our apples, cherries and apricots found the ground, becoming a feast for the birds and bugs and sticky, squelchy gum on the bottoms of our sneakers. And that's the sound of this song -- the soft twittering repast of critters and gentle squish of shoes. But also kitchen warmth. Because the fruit that did find its way to the house was transformed into pies and breads and preserves to keep us in the encroaching winter.

I wish I had space and time to talk about all 50 songs like this. But I'll end with the 2006 track I listened to most according to my iTunes counter: Tap Tap's "Off The Beaten Track" (mp3) (81 times, and that's only since late July!). Why such a high count? I used it as a wake-up song on my morning commute, and as a testament to its goodness (I am not a morning person), it still has no lasting negative associations.

The following qualified if they were released in any form, as actual singles, album cuts (some deep -- bet I'm the only one who chose "What Goes Around/Comes Around" from the Timberlake record), compilation tracks or were posted on artists' Web sites or Myspace pages and appeared current. They could be either domestic or foreign releases. And as I mentioned before, they are not ranked.

We've hosted some of the tracks and I found a couple links to songs hosted by record labels and bands. As for the rest, you can find some for download or stream on artists' websites or Myspace pages (each artist link takes you to one of those). You also might find songs by searching Hype Machine. And you can always buy the album or the track. I won't remind you why that's important.

Bring The Good Boys Home - The 1900s
Dart for My Sweetheart - The Archie Bronson Outfit
Funeral - Band of Horses
Apple Orchard - Beach House
Mount Wroclai (Idle Days) - Beirut
Another Sunny Day - Belle & Sebastian
Pile Of Gold - The Blow
To the Shore (Pathaan's Ray of Sunshine Remix) - Bombay Dub Orchestra
Strange Form Of Life - Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Mandarine Girl - Booka Shade
Lesley Parlafitt - Bromheads Jacket
Southern Comfort - Burial
Young Shields - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone
Dead Ends - Chad VanGaalen
Deep Safety - Chas. Mtn.
Did I Step On Your Trumpet - Danielson
Valentine - The Delays
Venus In Furs (Velvet Underground) - DeVotchka
Genie, Genie - Eric Bachmann
Don't Know Why (You Stay) - The Essex Green
Rivalry - Figurines
This Lamb Sells Condos - Final Fantasy
Months And Money (Dubwhore mix) - Flying Matchstick Men
The Modern - Frida Hyvonen
Conductor 71 - Fujiya & Miyagi
Crazy - Gnarls Barkley
Bloody Great Big Fucking Party - Hooker's Green No. 1
Falling Through The Roof - Horse Feathers
And I Was A Boy From School - Hot Chip
Eanie Meany - Jim Noir
Show Me - John Legend
What Goes Around/Comes Around - Justin Timberlake
For A Haystack - Kahoots
Silent Shout - The Knife
LDN - Lily Allen

Little Red Bird - The Lisa Marr Experiment
Daydreamin' (ft. Jill Scott) - Lupe Fiasco
No Party - Marit Bergman
Maybe Cocaine - Nick Jaina
Why We've Become Invisible - The Playwrights
Window - Richard Buckner
Anthem For The Already Defeated - Rock Plaza Central
Swallowed In Grace - The Shrinking Islands
Lavendermist - Si Schroeder

1 2 - Sol Seppy
Off The Beaten Track - Tap Tap
Cloth Coat Revolution - The Two Koreas
You May Be Blue - Vetiver
Gotta Go - Victor Scott
Dirty Blue - Woven Hand

My favorite albums of 2006 will be posted on Thursday.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Silent days and nights

Seasons Greetings, Joe Carey
Image: Joe Carey

Things will probably be sleepy around here for the rest of the week. I still need to put together my 2006 lists (songs and albums) and write 10,000 word essays for each. (That last bit is a joke.) But expect something come Monday.

In the meantime, kindly wander over and download the latest holiday-themed Contrast Podcast. I contributed for the first time in eons. My intro sounds rather phlegmatic; I was tired when I recorded it. But the song by Dressy Bessy, "All the Right Reasons," is adorable! (And I only just realized that in the outro they're singing "dreidel, dreidel," making it a very rare Christmas + Hanukkah song.) It was either that or Martha Wainwright's "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year," which to my ears sounds so sad and somber and intimate (as with many Wainwright family compositions, it's part conversation with kin), like something Patsy Cline might have sung with a tiny, bite-your-lip smile. So I thought I'd keep it closer to home where it wouldn't get lost amid the tinsel and twinkling lights.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year - Martha Wainwright

For further diversion...

Locust St. has wrapped up its century series with a spark and a sizzle and a bang. (Songs from the 80s, 90s and 00s are still posted for download.)

At Crickets, Chicago Reader writer Miles Raymer makes some smart observations about the near futility of trying to listen long and think deep about music these days :

Like, what if patience was the new hotness, and then everyone cool suddenly started ignoring all the chatter--the blogs and the worrying that all of the dudes at the rock club are going to harshly judge your shirt--and just totally got into listening to records? The Internet has cranked the volume and rate of things that you must hear, judge, file, and get over to such an extreme that obsessive indie dorks now actually have to forget more music in a year than they even heard in a whole year before MySpace happened. I would wager that there are entire extinct subspecies of German techno that no one on earth remembers happening.

Oh, and A CONTEST. Sort of. If you can name the source of the image (what it is from) Jon used in his post on Monday, email and we'll send you a CD. Either The Walkmen's Pussy Cats, because we have like four copies (it's actually pretty good), or a holiday mix of my making. The first person to answer correctly wins.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Hearing test

To some degree I'm repeating myself here, but plod on dear reader... there are extenuating circumstances. Amy mentioned that I've been sick. It's true. Not run-of-the-mill cold, flu or whooping cough ill, but one of those things where you're having nurses swap out new IV bags, one in each arm, for almost a week. I'm better now thank goodness (the stew was perfect, Am, merci).

About halfway through my medical vacation they switched my drugs to something that can affect your hearing if you're not careful. Being mildly paranoid (which isn't a bad thing in the hospital), I needed a self-evaluation. This hospital actually had wireless (weird but cool) but I didn't find anything online resembling a standard audiologists' bleep-and-bloop hearing test. Music was going to have to do.

To really gauge my ears I needed something that was familiar enough that I'd be able to judge if I was missing any detail and dynamic enough in terms of volume and tone to ensure a worthy test. Anything I'd listened to less than 100 times wasn't gonna work. Given that I didn't have my entire library with me and I keep the computer/iPod stocked with mostly new stuff, the choices were few. But there was one chestnut I'd kept around after I posted about it a while back. Old reliable "Chromosome Damage" would do the trick just fine. (Who says mp3 blogs aren't useful in real life?)

As I've mentioned before, there's a tremendous hook that goes off as the song fades (1:24) and then there are these weird sci-fi movie sample voices that flutter way down in the mix in the latter portion of the song (1:41 - 2:04). If I was getting all of that, my ears were fine (and they are).

Chromosome Damage - Chrome

So, all of you, store this somewhere for medical purposes. It's the musical equivalent of keeping two weeks of canned food and bottled water in the basement in case of natural disaster.

One other hospital story while I'm at it. In college, I spent a night or two at St. Mary's. They had no idea what was wrong with me, so they let me go after a couple nights (I think it was bad clams, actually). I shouldn't have expected much. These were the same personnel who once diagnosed a friend with, literally, the Devil's Grippe. Eight of my lives indeed.

Take Me Down To The Hospital - The Replacements

Half Machine Lip Moves/Alien Soundtracks, Chrome
Hootennany, The Replacements

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Bipolar pop


Catacombs - Ghost Stories

The Upper Ten/The Lower Five - Ghost Stories

Five years ago, the twisty, eccentric pop of The Shins' Oh, Inverted World dug warrens in my brain, built bunks and took up residence. But the band lost me with Chutes Too Narrow and, based on what I've heard of the forthcoming effort, I'm not finding my way back anytime soon. I know it probably seems like I bear a grudge against second (and beyond) records, and maybe I do. I love the imperfect fits and starts of translating heretofore private poetry, secret songs into the wider world's vernacular (what else was "New Slang" if not that trying trying trying?). Ghost Stories' aptly named Quixoticism has much of World's awkwardly effective hooks and emotional s-curves. One-man bedroom band Ron Lewis veers erratically between melancholy and elation, abject chin-to-the-floor guitar strum and effervescent hands-to-the-sky electronic keys and bells and whistles (literally). I don't usually post two tracks from one album anymore. But the above two--the sad, faltering "Catacombs" tumbling into the sparky beats and starry-eyed synths of "The Upper Ten/The Lower Five"--neatly map in miniature this very good album of bipolar pop.

And hey, have you noticed there seems to be a run on ghost names lately? Simon Reynolds tracks it.

Quixoticism comes out January 23 on Sonic Boom Recordings.
Ghost Stories' Myspace.

Around the World of Web:

In case you weren't following it as closely as I was, the VU acetate auction closed at $155,401 last night.

Everybody's got a list (or will soon). These are a couple of the better, atypical 2006 best-ofs I've seen:

Alex Ross/The Rest Is Noise
Sasha Frere-Jones
The Catbirdseat
Yeti Don't Dance
Sound Opinions message board

For a running, monster list of favorite 2006 music see Largehearted Boy.

And related, The Guardian's music blog calls for the death of best album lists.

Out of 5 (fellow Chicagoans) offers weekly mixes assembled by 10 contributors, one track each. These people seem to know one another, but I'd love to see this idea executed with 10 strangers and no theme.

Oh, speaking of children's books, I'm thrilled to see that Esther Averill's Jenny and the Cat Club series is back in print, courtesy of The New York Review of Books. My grandmother gave me a set when I was about six, and until I came across L. Frank Baum's Oz series in my school library, they were my favorite imaginary world. Averill and I also share an alma mater. There's more about how personally significant these books are, but I'll end with this: Maybe eight years ago when I was thinking about getting a small tattoo on my lower back (I didn't), the only image I ever seriously considered worthy of the physical commitment was the little black cat with the red scarf. If you have children (or children at heart) in your life, these books make great holiday gifts.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Swimming in the frozen sky

The Snowman

I was going to follow Sunday's post with more true tales of death, but I couldn't unleash that double downer. Not when it's the season to deck the halls and fa la la la la. So instead, allow me to introduce a song of molten silver arpeggio and sugar-dusted murmur, a cover by SYF friend Robin Allender. "Walking In The Air" is the theme from The Snowman, the animated film based on the book that I lived in ignorance of until just a few days ago. (Apparently, this is odd even for an American.)

Walking In The Air - Robin Allender

Robin is expected to (finally) release his debut album this spring on Dreamboat Records. In the meantime, check his Myspace for live dates in and around Bristol, UK. Also, he wrote a guest post for us this past summer.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Jazz funeral

My ghost series
Image: Adam Fuss

Anthem For the Already Defeated - Rock Plaza Central

Add It Up - Violent Femmes

Down By The Riverside - Mahalia Jackson

I was listening for maybe the fifth time to "Anthem For the Already Defeated," a disheveled Dixieland jazz dirge from Rock Plaza Central's beautiful and boisterous ode to joy, Are We Not Horses, and, unexpectedly, thought of a friend who died more than a decade ago. Erica and I were close as sisters (neither of us having actual ones) during those delicate, in-between years of 13 to 15. Which means, of course, we were fierce competitors. If she went to camp, I had to go. If I was allowed to start wearing makeup, so must she, and so on. Most of the time we ran neck and neck: She was better at math, I was better at English, she was good at tennis, I was a faster swimmer, she owned more clothes, mine sported better labels. But we were both strong-willed, opinionated, curious about everything and vaguely itchy to get out into the world--the way girls are before boys twist their desire into something specific and localized. We'd move into one another houses on weekends, staying up all night to read aloud from horror potboilers by John Saul or listen to music while flipping through Vogue and speculating about sex. One thing she always had on me, though, was fearlessness. There wasn't a movie she wasn't willing to try to sneak into, or a boy she was afraid to approach. It goes without saying her taste in music was more daring. One night, Erica brought over a Violent Femmes tape and we sat on my back porch for hours eating popcorn, laughing and singing along to that great testament to sexual frustration, "Add It Up" (ensuring my parents weren't just around the bend when we belted, Why can't I get just one fuck?).

I was briefly home one summer in my early 20s and sitting at the kitchen table when my mom asked if I had gone through the pile of mail and other items of interest she always collected in my long and more frequent absences. Because, she said casually, there was an obituary for Erica Sullivan. (And here, I should note my family's curiously muted approach to matters of mortality. When my dad's mother died, he mentioned it several days later in a phone conversation, and only after we'd spent five minutes talking about the weather. I don't think my mom cried at either of her parent's funerals, but after I sobbed loudly during my grandmother's service, my aunt made a point of commenting on it. My people, mostly long-time Americans of English and German Protestant extraction, don't do emotions. So when I say my mom mentioned casually, I mean, in the same breath in which she asked me to please clean out my bedroom's second closet so it could be used for winter coats.)

Erica drowned during a river-rafting excusion on the Colorado River. I hadn't seen her since we were 16 (the friendly rivalry became too intense, we went to different high schools, I don't know) but reading what her life had been since then was like skimming the salient details of my own up to that point. Like my parents, hers had eventually divorced (a sad, small fact you gather when the deceased's mother is reported as living in Arizona, and her father in Florida). She ended up graduating from a college I had applied to. And like me, she was pursuing graduate work--in her case, a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Her end confounds any kind of verbal profundity, so I'll lean on a cliche: This was a life rife with promise and severed too soon.

So what spell of words and sounds have me conjuring this ghost? "Anthem's" death-and-the-river trope, certainly. And its nod to the gospel tradition (gonna lay down my sword and shield/down by the riverside), not to mention shades (yes, a pun) of Greek tragedy--the kind of mythos I reach for when I can't find other ways to order chaos. Rock Plaza Central isn't offering an observation deck for rapturous transport to a heavenly reward or a placid-streamed portal to the underworld, though. Stumbling over ragged piano, fiddle, horns and accordion, singer Chris Eaton rages, teeth-grinding tenacious:

They can take our bones, and bury them
Deep under the river
But we'll still be together
And we cannot be defeated.

And this seems appropriate somehow, if you're going to try to eulogize (too many years too late) someone who was only 23, and who would not, I'm certain, have left this world without a fight.

Are We Not Horses, Rock Plaza Central (Amp Camp, band direct)
Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (Amazon)
The Essential Mahalia Jackson (Amazon, iTunes)