Staff Picks: Music
Andrew Bird’s music is in many ways unremarkable, in the sense that he like so many other musicians working today, crafts quirky, folk-pop with lyrics that strike you as urbane and literary. What differentiates Bird’s sundry brand of high-indie folk within this excessively saturated genre, packed full of overhyped, one-dimensional signer songwriters, stems from his classical music training, specifically his employment of the violin and other non-traditional rock and roll instrumentation (whistling and glockenspiel e.g.). Such an eclectic background provides Bird’s music with so much more compositional depth and textural nuance than his contemporary peers. Sample some of Bird’s material in this video clip at Pitchfork Media. If you’re a fan, Bird is slated to play the Kalamazoo State Theater on October 18th.
Noble beast [sound recording]
Before well known groups like Wilco, Neko Case, Ryan Adams, and a bevy of other artists known for their fusing of folk, rock and country elements rose to popular attention in the late nineties, there was a band from Minnesota called The Jayhawks. Influenced by late sixties folk rock idols like The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, and Bob Dylan, Minneapolis-based The Jayhawks formed in 1985. Led by two primary songwriters, Mark Olson and Gary Louris, The Jayhawks are still considered a bit of a cult band that never achieved the kind of commercial success that the above mentioned musicians have enjoyed. If you enjoy the intersection of rock, roots music and infectious hooks, then check out the Jayhawks’ influential discography. Officially on hiatus, the band known for influencing the sound of Alternative Country continues to perform on occasion as well as working on studio projects.
Watch a clip of their performance on Austin City Limits.
Rainy Day Music
Dead at 26 of an overdose of prescription drugs, British singer songwriter Nick Drake left behind a small yet influential body of acoustic songs layered with subtle pop and jazz sensibilities. Developing a fragile brand of spare and plaintive folk songs during the late 1960’s, Drake’s three albums went almost entirely unnoticed until an automobile commercial reintroduced a new generation to Drake’s quietly evocative songs in 2000. Drake’s music serves as an antecedent to the melancholic musings of contemporary artists like Belle and Sebastian, Devendra Banhart, Elliott Smith, and Iron and Wine. Pink Moon, his most realized album serves as a haunting reminder of what may have been had the young singer survived his bout with depression.
Way to blue [sound recording] : an introduction to Nick Drake
While I don’t often listen to country music, there are a few artists walking the fine line between country and rock who pique my interest. Neko Case is one of those artists; her music is an alternative rock-country hybrid that appeals to fans of both genres. I highly recommend her new album Middle Cyclone. If you’re a fan, you may want to check her out live at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids on July 16th.
Members of the Irish band Clannad have been making music individually and collectively since the mid-1970’s. Deeply rooted in traditional Irish and Celtic folk tradition, Clannad (Gaelic for “the family from Dore”) have expanded over the years to define the contemporary Irish genre. Purists will recall the aural simplicity of their early albums, which were very much in the vein of such contemporaries as Pentangle and Planxty. Their scope (and popularity) expanded greatly over the years, however, to include elements of worldbeat, jazz, adult contemporary, new age, pop, and progressive rock. U2 fans were introduced to Clannad during the mid-80’s when the haunting “Theme from Harry’s Game” was used as a concert pre-show opener. The same tune was later featured the film Patriot Games. The current popularity of Irish mega-shows like “Riverdance” (and Flatley’s spinnoff “Lord of the Dance”), Celtic Woman, and others owe much to Clannad’s groundbreaking work.
From the KPL collection, their Grammy Award winning Landmarks (1997) is typical of the latter-day Clannad style, combining elements of Irish folk with contemporary jazz and pop themes – think Sting meets Dire Straits somewhere in County Kerry. After nearly a decade of independent projects, the original members of Clannad reunited for a brief UK tour in 2008 and are reportedly working on a new album.
Apart from the collective Clannad, individual members have achieved a significant degree of success on their own. Lead singer Moya Brennan (Máire Ní Bhraonáin) has achieved a great deal of acclaim as a contemporary vocalist. Máire’s style very much mirrors the band, but further emphasizes her lush vocal harmonies. From the KPL catalog, Whisper to the Wild Water is a terrific place to start.
And in case Máire Brennan's voice and cover image seem somehow familiar, rest assured, there’s good reason. Though she left Clannad early on to pursue a solo career, Máire’s sister Enya (Eithne Ní Bhraonáin) should be no stranger to anyone who is a fan of contemporary Celtic music. KPL holds the majority of Enya’s solo works, including Paint the Sky with Stars, a compilation released in 1997. Call me old school, but for me, Watermark (1988) still remains the essential (quintessential?) Enya recording.
Bain sult as. (Enjoy!)
"Landmarks" by Clannad
Sometimes you listen for fun, other times you listen to learn. The Library of Congress recordings of Jelly Roll Morton offers a little bit of both – actually a LOT of both. Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax is an amazing eight disk set, which presents for the first time, the complete recordings (including the spoken word segments) fully restored, speed corrected and remastered, along with a series of interviews and performances from 1949 conducted again by Alan Lomax, exploring the roots of jazz with Morton’s contemporaries. Rounder has long been acclaimed for presenting traditional American music with great attention to detail, and this is certiainly no exception. With 128 tracks in all, the set includes lavish liner notes, photos, letters, notes and more in both printed and digital form.
Recorded in 1938, these recordings offer more than nine hours of music and conversation with one of the self-proclaimed inventors of “jazz, stomps and swing.” Aside from great spontaneous performances of early jazz, ragtime classics, and a little dose of “them dirty blues” (hence the parental advisory), Morton tells the stories behind many of these tunes, and describes the people who inspired them. In what is perhaps one of the first true oral histories, it’s a fascinating first-hand account of the evolution of popular music, told (and played) by someone who not only witnessed it, but actually lived and breathed it. The following dialog is typical and opens the set…
”When I was down on the Gulf Coast in nineteen-four, I missed going to the St. Louis Exposition to get in the piano contest, which was won by Alfred Wilson of New Orleans. I was very much disgusted because I thought I should have gone. I thought Tony Jackson was gonna be there, and of course that kind of frightened me. But I knew I could have taken Alfred Wilson. So then I decided that I would, uh, travel about different little spots. Of course I was down in Biloxi, Mississippi, during the time. I used to often freq— frequent the Flat Top, which was nothing but a old honky-tonk, where nothing but the blues were played. There was fellows around played the blues like Brocky Johnny, Skinny Head Pete, Old Florida Sam, and Tricky Sam, and that bunch.” (excerpt from The Story of “I’m Alabama Bound”)
How fortunate we are to have documents such as this, which allow us to explore the roots of contemporary music and culture. It’s a fascinating set and well worth the time.
Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax
Every year Young Adult author, David Levithan (Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist) asks his friends to list their favorite music (CDs and songs) of the previous year. I truly enjoy the list because someone always mentions something I missed. The winner in 2008 was the debut by Vampire Weekend. The Top Ten also included Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, and Portishead. Since it is the 10th Anniversary of the "David Music Poll" he asked each of us to also list our Top Ten in the past ten years. Check out all the selections at the David Music Poll Blog. Scroll to the bottom to find my selections.
When a CD title asks you to “meet” an artist you’ve known for three or four decades (unless it's a reissue or a tribute to Meet the Beatles), you can guess the artist is getting an artistic makeover, upping their “hip" quotient, attracting new listeners and allowing old fans to hear the performer with fresh ears.
In a sense, that’s what’s happening on Meet Glen Campbell, the latest release by the veteran country/pop star and ace guitarist (as a session musician in the early ‘60’s, he was reportedly earning up to 10 grand a week). Scanning the track listing – here’s a Lou Reed Velvets cover, there’s a Foo Fighters hit – one might think the recording is a stripped-down affair, akin to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series, revealing the raw essence of an artist thought to be past their prime.
It’s the songs, though, that get the makeovers. Awash in orchestral arrangements, the new productions recall the Jimmy Webb-penned evergreens (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”) that made Campbell a star in the late '60's. Being mostly ballads, the songs aren’t being stretched beyond recognition (in some cases, as with the cover of U2’s “All I Want is You”, the string settings are familiar), but once you hear Campbell’s voice, unravaged by time, delivering those songs in the florid baroque pop style that held its own against the psychedelic rock revolution (what sounds more dated now?), you may forget the originals exist, or weren’t written with Campbell in mind.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of Billie Joe Armstrong or Paul Westerberg – if you’ve been a fan of Glen Campbell, this is the return to form you’ve been waiting for (or never expected). If you really don’t know Glen Campbell… well, this is as good a chance to meet him as any.
Meet Glen Campbell
I apologize for taking so long to post the final four of my Top Ten CDs of 2008. Since my last installment I was thrilled to discover that two of my colleagues blogged about two other fabulous CDs from 2008 that did not crack my list, Fleet Foxes and TV on the Radio. Other CDs worth checking out from 2008 include efforts from She & Him, Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, Cut Copy, Girl Talk and The Hold Steady.
4. Blitzen Trapper, Furr – The best “campfire” CD of the year. This Portland, Oregon band spins yarns of men turning into wolves and serial killers with music reminiscent of Neil Young recording with the guys from Elephant Six. This is music that could quite possibly define the sound of the early 21st century. Best Tracks – “Sleepytime in the Western World,” “Gold for Bread,” “Furr,” “Black River Killer,” “War on Machines”
3. Flight of the Conchords, Flight of the Conchords – How could you not love a duo that calls themselves the, "4th most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo" in New Zealand? Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement are not only hilarious but also very talented musicians and songwriters. On their debut CD they pay homage to Marvin Gaye, Pet Shop Boys, Radiohead, and David Bowie without becoming carbon copies. Best Tracks – “Inner City Pressure,” “Think About It,” “Robots,” “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room),” “Business Time”
2. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend – Early in 2008, the debut full-length CD from this preppy band from New York City was on the verge of being over-hyped. I jumped on the wagon early and never found a reason to jump off. This CD has the feel of early Police with a flavor of Paul Simon’s Graceland which many of the critics called “Afro-pop.” The lyrics are smart and the tunes are filled with exuberant hooks that will keep you bouncing in your seat for days. A CD destined to become a classic. Best Tracks – “Oxford Comma,” “A-Punk,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” “M79,” “Campus,” “One (Blake’s Got a New Face),” “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance”
1. Los Campesinos! – Hold on Now, Youngster… - My personal favorite CD of 2008 is ironically a CD that I totally missed ordering for the collection (don’t worry it is now on order). The band’s moniker is Spanish for “the farmers” or “the peasants” but they possess a sound that is more fitting for a spastic indie-punk party than a simple, backwoods music circle. It is tough to pinpoint their sound, but I have tried by saying that if you put The New Pornographers, Art Brut, The Decemberists and Architecture in Helsinki in a blender you would get a sound similar to this seven piece band from Wales. It is almost cliché to say that a band is “hyper-literate” but it is a description, along with hilarious, energetic, and talented, that best fits Los Campesinos! Check them out for yourself on February 10th in Grand Rapids. Best Tracks – “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats,” “Death to Los Campesinos!,” “Don’t Tell Me to Do the Math(s),” “You! Me! Dancing!,” “..And We Exhale and Roll Our Eyes in Unison”
I look forward to the music coming in 2009 and your comments about my list!
Hold on Now, Youngster...
Not surprisingly, in the time I've worked at the library, I've become a much more regular library patron than I used to be, particularly for print materials. Only recently however, have I begun to take more frequent advantage of KPL's growing music collection. My own taste in music has always been somewhat electic and I love being able to check out a CD by an artist I haven't heard before to decide if it's something I would be interested in purchasing. I've also enjoyed reading on this blog about what my colleagues are listening to and I look forward to checking out some of their recommendations. In fact, I was happy to see that one or two of my own favorites have already been the subject of previous posts on this blog. Right now, my own playlist includes: The Weepies, Shelby Lynne, Fall Out Boy, Darius Rucker, Alison Krauss, Fleet Foxes, Jason Mraz, Neil Diamond (it's a blast from my past listening to him again!), Regina Spektor, and an occasional Broadway soundtrack.
Another good way to learn about new music is by subscribing to NPR's Song of the Day.
Say I Am You