.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}



What Fun Music Was

Better late than never? A list of '05 musics--

The Year, Reviewed:

SPOON - Gimme Fiction
This has become popular enough for me to not have to go into details, but let me just say that Gimme Fiction is the most solid top-to-bottom rock album that I've heard this year, from songwriting to production. Britt Daniels hits all the wrong notes right, leaves a lot of blank space, and makes it work wonderfully.

Another indie version of a Southern-fried jam band goes into the studio with a legendary British producer and out pops intriguing hybrid wizardry. Soaring, echoing vocals, with grand sweeping (I almost said emo) instrumentation -- and yes, occasionally the jam rears its wooly head too. The Flaming Lips did not put out an album this year, thank you very much, but it does neither band a disservice to say that Z fills that hole nicely. Most Improved Player.

Even though it's become increasingly fashionable to bash this cobbled-together band of strung-out misfits (is using Gibsons really a capital offense?), I thought they did a great job of emulating their influences. Dear Pitchfork: It's sometimes OK to be obvious.

AKRON/FAMILY - s/t and Akron/Family and the Angels of Light
Embodying the phrase "promising debut," the self-titled full-length weds some fairly middle of the road singer-songwriter stuff to heavenly keyboard overdubs and communal clamor. The EP shows more range, including a tendency towards wild skronk that's almost mathy; that is, if they weren't in the same song throwing both fay British folk vocals and field hollers on top (see: "Raising the Sparks").

VASHTI BUNYAN - Lookaftering
A legendary folk lady has returned after a 30+ year absence from recording. She's got a good excuse, having spent that time raising a family (as is referred to in the title, and in many of the lyrics). Her light, airy voice and delicate acoustic guitar does not make for good driving, headphone, or party music, but set up an empty room, hit play, and have this album reward you with its winsome enchantment.

1st Encounters:

HORACE ANDY - Dance Hall Style
From 1980, on the Wackies label, reissued with money gained from the sale of German techno (!). "Dance hall style" means that songs and dubs are seamlessly strung together into hazy, tripped-out rhythms reminscent of the best of Black Ark, as sung by one of the more distinctive voices in reggae.

KONONO NO. 1 - Congotronics
This is showing up on a lot of year-end lists, but my CD clearly gives an '04 copyright, so I'm listing it here. The first track is a little too "world music" for me, but from there the trance is induced, and any argument I may have with it falls away.

One of the more incongruous great 60's albums (and yes, that's saying something), 4 finds Walker singing an entire album of his own songs for the first, and last, time. Finally the orchestral tendencies of his earlier solo LPs have been reined in to enhance, not detract, from his lovely, syrupy voice, and strikingly cracked lyrics.

BILL FAY - Time of the Last Persecution
Wherein the weary young folkie of the self-titled debut turns into apocalyptic prophet, having seen Kent State as a signal towards the Antichristian forces of totalitarian government. Despite the doomy tone, shafts of light do illuminate some beautiful compositions. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this album is that it's so listenable, and with most songs clocking in around three minutes, almost radio-ready. Gone is the overbearing symphony of the first album; enter the fret-shredding of jazz player Ray Russell.

As Seen:

WIRE - On the Box 1979
I could never figure out how they pulled off the first three albums live. Now, I know: they didn't. Who knew that Colin Newman made such a convincing frontman? Or that the band, while they were busy nailing the post to post-punk, spent as much effort in concert erecting the latter term?

Arvo Part: Twenty Four Preludes For A Fugue
Shown at the Sound Unseen music documentary festival in MPLS this year, this quiet, austere film slightly illuminates the homespun orthodoxy of the composer himself. I don't have a better understanding of Part's signature "tintinnabulist" method after seeing this, but the recording of his adaptation of the Robert Burns poem, "My Heart's In the Highlands," leaves an impression that lingers long afterwards, a peace that passeth understanding.


Heavenly Soles

FIRE "Magic Shoes"

From the same Fire (UK) who rose above Nuggets II with the unknown single, "Father's Name Was Dad." Their sole album, The Magic Shoemaker, showcased some surprisingly operatic vocals and attempts at proto-prog grandeur, while attempting to illustrate the titular concept by splicing between tracks a poorly mic'd recording of the singer rambling loopily to a group of schoolchildren. A total letdown, in other words, but this track, with its precocious piano and cooed vocals, is pleasant enough.

FRED NEIL "Travelin' Shoes"

Fred Neil was one of the Great Dropouts of the 60's explosion, an uncompromising combination of outlaw and wounded poet. His legend fired the brains of the obsessed for decades before news leaked a couple years ago that he had quietly passed away in Florida. This track is from his heralded Bleecker & MacDougal album. A jaunty, not quite raucous, track that could be lazily held up next to early Dylan, but that would only remind the listener that Dylan didn't have recourse to this casually seething kind of menace until, say, Time Out of Mind. Neil tosses off a line like "Some people say I'm goin' to hell -- and they're right," while sounding totally off the cuff, and totally right.


Status Is Hood

Jonathan Richman "New Kind of Neighborhood"

Featuring the most lovable VU fan under the sun, and at full gallop. I like the urban cowboy flava the backup singers provide, and how it manages to redeem the goofiness of the Travolta version. This song's so Jonathan. It's all about finding another way of being different and yet being accepted: "And the neighbors said, but they didn't frown/'New kind of neighborhood'".

Express Rising "Neighborhood"

Sample spotting: That placid, stoned guitar line is the showcase of Moby Grape's "Sittin' By the Window," from the good Moby Grape album. I really appreciate the fact that the DJ starts in one mood and stays there throughout the LP's duration. However, this languorous approach also resulted in people literally sleeping on the album. It's called Express Rising, but No Dancing would've worked just as well, if not better; there's not much on the rise here -- a winter fog, maybe? It's just two turntables and a pine forest, cold rockin' it. Holla, evergreen!