Sunday, December 19, 2010

Favorite albums of the year

I’ve not updated this blog very much this year – my job has kept me especially busy lately. But I have been listening to a lot of music (I still have my 45 min commute) and, as I have done for the past few years, I have compiled a list of my favorite music for the year. So here they are, in no particular order - the albums that especially got me excited this year.

Robert Plant / Band of Joy – This album surprised me. I listened to Raising Sand, Plant’s duet album with Allison Krauss and, while I liked it, I didn’t spend much time with it. Band of Joy, though, is a bit moodier and the production is airy and interesting. Plant’s singing is, of course, great. I was a fan of Led Zeppelin in the 70s but haven’t listened to much of his solo work. Plus it is fun to hear Plant singing in his lower register.

Elvis Costello / National RansomMomofuku, Costello’s album two albums ago was great. I thought it was up there with his very best. But I was disappointed with the follow-up, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. I found the melodies on SP&S to be not as intriguing and the sound of the album didn’t move me. National Ransom is like an extension of Secret except Costello branched out a lot more in style so, where SP&S was somewhat one style throughout, Ransom is quite varied. Every once in a while, when I’m listening to Costello, I realize what an amazing writer he is – his songs have interesting chord progressions and his melodies, which are catchy, are not obvious. I’ve noticed that on many of the songs on National Ransom. It ranks up there among my favorite Costello albums.

Sufan Stevens / All Delighted People / The Age of Adz – This year, Sufjan Stevens put out both and EP and a full album, although the EP was nearly an hour long so calling it an EP was a bit strange. Both of them are among my favorite albums of the year. All Delighted People features a lot of what we’ve come to expect from recent Sufjan albums, twittering flutes, interesting arrangements and heartfelt (if not a bit obscure) lyrics. It is great. Some of the eight tracks are long but the arrangements are complex enough to hold my attention throughout. This album (OK, he calls it an EP so that we realized it wasn’t meant to be his BIG STATEMENT) is great - maybe the lowered expectations helped me see as just a nice collection of songs. Then a few months later he delivered The Age of Adz, a big electronic serious album about schizophrenia and identity. When I heard it I realized that, indeed, All Delighted People was just the warm up. The album is complex and fascinating in it’s combination of quirky Sufjan flutes and other wind instruments mixed with the beeps and blurps of electronica.

Fistful of Mercy / As I Call You Down – Fistful of Mercy is Dhani Harrison, Beh Harpur and Joseph Arthur, all three interesting indie artists who have their own projects. I became aware of them because of Dhani Harrison, George’s son, and because I liked his album of last year with his band thenewno2. In fact, I named their album one of my favorites of the year. Their new project, Fistful of Mercy, is quite different – part Crosby Stills and Nash, part Traveling Wilburys. Not the most elegant or serious album in my collection but it features fine (although a little quirky) three part harmonies most of the time and a nice acoustic vibe throughout.

Eric Clapton / Clapton – Releasing a self-titled album more than 45 years into your career says something. In this case it says that this is a very personal album. While not as emotionally raw as Pilgrim, as radio-friendly as Slowhand, or as guitar heavy as Journeyman, Clapton is a warm relaxed tour through much of the music that Eric Clapton has found himself drawn to over the last few years. There are few songs with drums playing flat-out, for example. Most of them feature brushes or at least drums that are gently played or pushed to the background. But this isn’t an earthy acoustic album – this is a jazzy album that is a combination of blues and standards featuring Clapton the singer as much as Clapton the player. Some of the songs would be at home on an album from the 1940s while others would sit nicely on Clapton’s duet album with J J Cale and still others would be on a slightly softer version of one of Clapton’s blues albums like From the Cradle or Me and Mr Johnson. Don’t come to this album expecting to have your socks rocked off. Clapton apparently isn’t interested in that right now. But for a mature album by a veteran musician, this one is great.

Peter Gabriel / Scratch My Back – The reviews of this album are all over the map from “best ever” to “what was he thinking?” so I hesitated before getting it but when I did I quickly joined the “best ever” camp. Gabriel, who famously instituted a “no cymbals” rule for one of his early solo albums put in a “no guitars or drums” rule on this album and gave us a lushly orchestrated album of cover versions of songs by other artists. The arrangements are hauntingly beautiful and a few of the songs are slowed down to the point where you hear them in a whole new way. His cover of Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage" is gripping and Lou Reed's "The Power of the Heart" is just beautiful.

Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson / Frio Suite – Phil Keaggy has released a number of albums over the years but lately he’s been doing some interesting work with other artists. He’s released albums with Randy Stonehill, with Jack Giering and John Sferra and soon he’ll be releasing an album with percussionist Kyle Jones. (He gave me a copy of that album, called Numen, which may well end up on my next year’s list – it doesn’t seem fair to put an album on here that isn’t out yet so I'll wait on that one.) Frio Suite, with keyboardist Jeff Johnson is a beautiful, new-age-type album that is subtle and moving. The two of them recorded this at a distance, each adding their own parts in their own studio, but you'd never know it by listening. It sounds like a wonderful journey down a metaphorical river.

Finally, two albums that I really haven’t taken the time to dig into yet but I want to add to this list because I think they belong here:

Arcade Fire / The Suburbs – Another great Arcade Fire album – they’re three for three now. I like how they manage to tackle big issues while at the same time being not uber-artsy and inaccessible. I find their music often takes me a while to really understand and this one is no exception.

The Rescues / Let Loose the Horses – The Rescues was my big discovery last year and Let Loose the Horses is their first major label release. I don’t like it quite as well as their earlier stuff – yet, at least – but I’m a fan of their harmonies and their sound. Also of note, their cover of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” (unfortunately, not on this album – but available as a single on iTunes) is awesome.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Buy Bethany's Book

You should all buy The Book of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. It is based on her popular blog and is now available though amazon and other fine booksellers.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Worship Songs

Recently on a friend’s facebook wall I engaged in a discussion about the lyrics to a song for worship. I argued that we need to choose songs well – that with the thousands of worship songs available we can only use a few and it is good for us to choose ones that work well and avoid the ones with questionable lyrics.

With that in mind when a song from Michael W. Smith’s recent worship album, A New Hallelujah, came on my iPod I started this discussion in my head all over again. The song is “When I Think of You” and I love to sing along with it. It has a great beat, the arrangement is very cool (it is sung with an African Children’s Chorus) and it’s really catchy. The problem is that I’m not really sure what it means. Here are the lyrics:

When I think of you, I see you dancing, You’re dancing.
When I think of you, I hear you singing to me
When I think of you, I see You praying
You’re Praying
When I think of you, I hear you calling for me

Yahweh, there is no one like You, Lord
Yahweh, Hallelujah, we sing
Yahweh, there is no one like You, Lord
Yahweh, Your banner for me
Your banner for me is Love

There is no one like,
There is no one like my Yahweh, my Yahweh

This all gets repeated multiple times. As I said, it’s real catchy and by the second time through I’m usually singing along. Here’s my question, though: what is it about? Who is “you” in this song? Who is thinking about whom? In the chorus, "you" is clearly the Lord - but what about in the verses? After thinking about it for a bit I’m beginning to think that this is just another example of a worship song in which the composer strings together a bunch of nice sounding spiritual words, which really don’t go anywhere. This was reinforced when, before the next song MWS sings “faith is rising tonight” a couple of times – I’m not sure what that means either. Now I like Smith a lot – I have almost all of his albums over all these many years and when he records a worship song it often becomes the definitive version. So, tell me what you think about this one.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Glass Harp’s best album

Recently Glass Harp released a 2008 concert CD that, initially I was less than excited about. That was before I heard it. You see, I figured I’d heard all these songs before. I have the original three albums. I have Hourglass, their reunion CD. I have the Carnegie Hall Live CD, the With Strings Attached set and also the massive Stark Raving Jams and they’re OK. But none of them (with the possible exception of Carnegie Hall, recorded in the early 70s) really caught the excitement and the improvisational power of these three guys. I finally got to see them about five or 6 years ago and I was thrilled – they rarely tour together anymore. But Strings Attached was just too calm and too scripted. Stark Raving Jams was too unfocussed and the recording quality wasn’t great.

So when I saw that Live at the Beachland Ballroom was being released I thought that this was just another live Glass Harp album with the same songs (they mostly still play the stuff from their three original studio albums) and that it was totally redundant. I was wrong.

Live at the Beachland Ballroom is the one Glass Harp CD that you need to have. I haven’t heard Phil Keaggy playing with this sort of abandon and fire on a recording in years. And Glass Harp is not just Phil and a rhythm section – Dan Peccio and John Sferra are totally on target here too and the connection between these guys while they play is amazing. They’re totally in sync and the band turns on a dime. This is clear in a number of places on the album but no more so than in the nearly 16-minute “Beachland Jam.” The band jumps in and out of multiple jams, mostly started by Phil on guitar but within seconds Dan and John jump in and join him. Vocally, they’ve never been better and instrumentally they’re at the top of their game. This is probably the best Glass Harp album yet. Buy it here.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Thinking about U2’s Zooropa – exile and restoration

I found myself awake a lot last night so I popped in my earbuds, hit play on my iPod and listened to Zooropa, perhaps the U2 album I have had the least affinity to. That may have changed after my careful listen last night.

I realized that you can view this album as being two halves – the first half about the shallowness of the world and the second half about restoration, a theme that shows up in scripture as exile and restoration in the overarching story of Israel and in smaller stories like the Prodigal Son.

Let's take a quick walk through the album and see what's there. (You can find all the lyrics here.) In “Zooropa” we hear “And I have no compass and I have no map / And I have no reasons, no reasons to get back / And I have no religion and I don't know what's what / And I don't know the limit, the limit of what we got” which indicate that the singer has no direction.

“Babyface” reduces the woman that Bono sings about to little more than tinfoil and lace. Perhaps the most obvious example is “Numb” with its litany of excesses in the current age. “Lemon” is a reflection on how the image is preferable to the actual person. Building the car itself becomes the destination – we’re really going nowhere. “Stay” tells the story of yet another aimless person: “Red light, grey morning / You stumble out of a hole in the ground / A vampire or a victim / It depends on who's around.”

This brings us through the first half of the album – a half that’s frankly, pretty depressing. It is an unflinching look at a world that has little going for it except an onslaught of excess.

In the second half things start to look up. We begin, surprisingly enough, with a song about a crashed car. Who “Daddy” is is never explicit but it must be a song about grace. We crash the car and God pays for it. When I first heard “some days are better than others” I thought about the bad days that are referred to. Now I think that it’s a song about the good ones. “Some days you hear a voice taking you to another place / Some days are better than others.”

“The First Time” is a song with the Trinity built into it, the Holy Spirit in verse one, the Son in the second verse and then the Father in the third. I was puzzled by the throwing away of the keys in the third verse for a while, thinking that Bono was talking about leaving the church. Now I don’t think that’s the case. The key in question is not the key to church – in all three verses we see that God has reached out and the singer has not been able to fully grasp what’s being offered – in the third verse it’s the keys to the coming kingdom but the singer is too caught up in the stuff from the first half of the album to accept them. But he still recognizes that he feels loved.

I wonder if the voice of “Dirty Day” is the voice of Jesus. Here’s why: the father to son talk, the talk about “kissin’ time” and this verse: "Get it right
/ There's no blood thicker than ink
/ Hear what I say
/ Nothing's a simple as you think
/ Wake up
/ Somethings you can't get around
/ I'm in you 
/ More so when they put me in the ground."

If, in “Dirty Day,” redemption is made explicit, then it’s made personal in the “The Wanderer.” This album is a journey – a journey from the crassness and excesses of society to the redemption offered by Christ and accepted by flawed people. It’s a story of grace. I like this album a lot better now!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back

Music is pretty important to me. I have it on most of the time and I listen pretty intently quite often. Every once in a while an album comes along that just stops me in my tracks. The latest one to do that – and the first one in a while – is Peter Gabriel’s gorgeous Scratch My Back. Scratch My Back is a covers album but it is unlike any other covers album I’ve ever come across. Gabriel likes to make rules for an album – the rule for his third solo album (Melt) was “no cymbals.” OK – that sounds weird but what happened was the drummers and producers came up with the gated drum sound that went on to define Phil Collins’ drum sound on his first few solo albums. The rule for Scratch My Back was “no guitars and no drums.”

The result, and apparently Gabriel did not necessarily start out looking at it this way, is an album of voice, piano and orchestra. These are not flimsy pop orchestrations. These are some of the most robust and exciting string arrangements I’ve heard lately. Of all the songs that Gabriel covers there are only a few that I was familiar with before the album. The album starts out with David Bowie’s “Heroes” and right off the bat you hear the strings announce that this is an album that you don’t want to listen to in a hurry. Not every song sends chills up my spine but an awful lot of them do. Elbow’s “Mirrorball” is amazingly haunting and Lou Reed’s “The Power of the Heart” is breathtaking. Gabriel’s slow take on Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” allows us to hear the lyrics in a new light – “the way the camera follows us in slo-mo” indeed. Neil Young’s “Philadelphia” is actually not much of a departure from the original but Gabriel’s voice gives it a different feel and gives it a new interpretation.

I looked at the reviews on Amazon and I find that people either love this album, giving it 4 or 5 stars or hate it, giving it 1 or 2. I totally get that – this album is going to either make you think Gabriel is a genius or it will bore you. I am firmly in the first category.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fun with Garageband

I've been having fun with Garageband lately - here is my latest recording, a cover of Phil Keaggy's "Days Like You." If you download it (it is an itunes file) and listen to it let me know how much you like it. If you don't just pretend you didn't hear it. :-)

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Paul McCartney: Good Evening New York City

When I heard that McCartney was releasing a CD/DVD of his NYC run of shows last summer I thought that this was probably one too many live releases. After all, Paul’s pattern lately has been tour after releasing a studio album (or, as he’s started doing lately, do a mini-tour) and then release a DVD of the show. He has been using the same band since the 2001 tour to support Driving Rain, his first album after his wife Linda passed away and he’s released four DVDs with this band (not even counting the shorter things like the Memory Almost Full Deluxe Edition or the third disc of the McCartney Years.) So I did not rush right out to buy this one. However, a friend told me that Meijer had Good Evening New York City for $10.99 – that’s for 2 CDs and a DVD – and I couldn’t resist it so I asked Laura to get it for me for Christmas and that’s what happened – it sat waiting for me for as a present along with other DVDs this Christmas.

So I’ve been watching it over the past few days about a half hour at a time and I’ve come to believe that this is perhaps the best live McCartney DVD yet. Here are my reasons:

  • Paul’s in great form – he and the band are playing and singing great. (There has been some Internet complaining about his use of auto-tune but, frankly, I don’t hear it.) They’ve been playing together for nearly a decade and it shows. They’re tight and playful in their playing. I’ve never noticed that Brian Ray is a fine bassist before – a nice bonus for when Paul plays guitar or piano.
  • He does excellent versions of songs he’s done before with some nice twists like jams at the end of “I’ve Got a Feeling” and in the middle of “Paperback Writer.” The version of “Something” is like the one on the Concert for George, where Paul starts with the ukulele but then the band comes in part way through – very nicely done.
  • The set list is very good. Lot so Beatles, of course – nearly the entire second half of the concert is Beatles – but also a very nice selection of solo stuff taken from a large number of his albums. Band on the Run is, of course, well represented with four selections but one of those is the seldom-played “Mrs Vanderbilt.” There are also a few songs from McCartney’s recent Fireman album Electric Arguments as well as Memory Almost Full. Even the Beatles songs have some surprises like “I’m Down” and “A Day in the Life” ended with Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” (Credited just to Lennon, by the way, even though the original was officially listed as a Lennon/McCartney song.)
  • This is one of the first DVDs of Paul’s shows that actually just shows the concert rather than having lots of intercut interviews, etc. And this time the focus is on the band rather than showing how much the fans are loving it, unlike some of his other videos. Another annoyance in some of the early videos is the frenetic editing – you never get more than a few seconds on any one band member. This time the pace is about right.

In nearly every way this video is superior to others that he has released lately. Even if, like me, you have many of his videos in your collection, this one is worth getting and if you don’t have any then this is the one you should consider getting, especially considering the price.