February 2013: Goodbye to the Working Week

Jim James – A New Life Regions of Light and Sound is this month's obsession for me. Like most music obsessions of mine, it is like a teacher whose lessons seem bottomless. The more I listen to it, the more I learn. It's at once beautiful and unsettling. Humble and ambitious. Ancient and futuristic. Besides Jim James' gorgeous singing, I think the power of the record as a whole comes from the incredibly broad palette from which it draws sonic textures. Typically, James' voice is flush with reverb, yet other instruments (bass guitar on Know Til Now, fuzzed-out lead guitar on Dear One) are clean, direct, and front and center. The songs are peppered with sounds which could be coming from a Victrola in a parlor somewhere butting up against burps of electronic noise which could be blasting in a dance club in Berlin. There's a dissonance to the music, one that isn't necessarily apparent at any one point, but which accrues slowly through the course of the album, and especially over multiple listens. It doesn't give up its secrets easily.

This song, A New Life, is so full of life and builds like a snail transforming into a freight train. Form and content are perfectly in line. Joy + Joy. It has that unsettling warbly sound which shows up in multiple places on the album, straddling the line between a tenor sax and a moog, and never coming down on either side. I love that I can't tell what it is. The video is beautiful as well, and is a perfect accompaniment to the hope and strangeness of the music. 

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John – You're The One That I Want Speaking of joy. I just love the way this sounds. The bass and drums are great. The singing's great. The song is great. Perfect.

Mohammed Rafi – Jaan Pehechaan Ho Last week the lady and I saw this great local instrumental group called Mar Caribe. Their repertoire hops from the Southwest to South America and across several oceans. The leader plays banjo and pedal steel backed up by a great rhythm section and horn section. At the end of their set, as the night (or my perceptions of it, anyway) got warm and fuzzy, they covered this song, with the banjo playing the melody. In one of those frighteningly agile leaps of the brain, I immediately recognized the song and almost just as immediately felt that it was from Ghost World, a movie I saw once many years ago and which did not otherwise make any great impression (okay, Scarlett Johansen is pretty cool in it). Why did I remember this? No idea. But the Bollywood hit holds up.

Constantines – Lizaveta James Lee turned me on to this band five or six years ago and I listened to this album a bunch for a week or two and then kind of let it go into the ether. One day at work recently I just got the sound of the singer's voice in my head and wanted to hear it. I wracked my brain for the name of the band and just couldn't wrap my tentacles around it. Overly-broad searches for "Canadian rock band" on Google proved predictably fruitless. I texted James "Dude, what is the name of that Canadian rock band we were listening to, like, five years ago? Singer has kind of a gruff voice. The..." He immediately replied, "Constantines." Apparently, they made an equally deep impression on him. The funny thing is that in my memory this album was way more agro and much less emotionally and musically dynamic than I think it is listening to it now. Really a joy to hear a record you remember liking and realize it's even better than you remember.

Buke & Gase – Hiccup There's plenty of press about this group, much of it centering on their homemade instruments and the kind of "one-man-band" thing they do. (There are two of them, but they each do several things at once, percussion on their feet, etc, a la Jesse Fuller). Basically, I think the music is a kind of mathy, post-hardcore-or-something thing, but because of the quirky instrumentation (and female vocals?) it takes on a whole different character. 

Elvis Costello – Welcome To The Working Week This begins my little mini-suite about work. My work situation has dramatically altered this month, and although I knew it was coming it's proven to be pretty disorienting. Years ago, when I lived in Tucson, I went through an Elvis Costello binge, tearing through my friend Nate's mp3 collection (mp3s, and having so much music at my fingertips were a novelty to me in 2002). It seemed to me then, and still does to some extent, that this is the best of his songs. I know most people will disagree, but I like the hypothetical irony of such a prolific and long-producing artist's best song being the first song on his first album, and lasting only 1:23 long.

Richard Thompson – Stuck On The Treadmill I can't even begin to address Richard Thompson here. Let's just say he's a personal hero, and super-influential on my music. This new album is superb at capturing the ferocity and eccentricity of his electric guitar playing. I know his singing isn't for everyone, but I love the whole package - impeccable and idiosyncratic guitar technique, top-notch songwriting, and a musical pedigree that can't be rivaled. Plus, the dude's in his sixties and just seems to get better and better. This short piece by Jim DeRogatis captures my feelings about his place in musical culture almost perfectly.

Dubmood – Pressure Drop This is one of those great weird finds that Spotify makes possible. The number of different versions of this song is pretty surprising, but this one tickles me.

STRFKR – Leave It All Behind Steve turned me on to this group a few years ago, and (along with White Denim) is in his cache of adopted favorite bands. They went through some name changes (apparently Starfucker didn't seem commercially viable?), but are back to this altered version of the original. Thumpy. Dancy. Organic and synthetic. The whole album's pretty great for working out at the gym.

Iggy Pop – Success I feel like I'm still wrapping my head around Iggy Pop. The feral, unpolished image that comes from the early Stooges era always seemed to me at odds with idea that he worked with Bowie, and the sound of the songs on this album. They just seem oddly polished and catchy for someone known for bleeding all over the stage. I think it really illustrates a time in music where the boundaries of "punk" (and genres in general) weren't as rigid as they later became. I think (hope?) that we're in a period like that again, actually.

Gramma's Boyfriend – I Have This Feeling This Haley Bonar side-project has been on heavy rotation in my ears. We went to see Bonar last week (she played before Mar Caribe), and when we bought this album on vinyl she told me that I was the second person to own it. Sweet! (It's also really cool colored red vinyl.) The music is playful and fun, and I love the way the vocal wildness that is only hinted at in her solo stuff is given free reign here.

Haley Bonar – Bad Reputation A newer track released as a 7" last year. Watching her perform with her band it occurred to me that, in a perfect world, she's like what Taylor Swift would become in 10-15 years. I know the comparison doesn't shine well on Bonar, and will admit that the idea is partly inspired by their physical similarities (pretty, skinny, white girls). What I mean to say really is that if Swift finds herself outgrowing the hyper-commercial musical world she reigns over, she could do much worse than making music this soulful and gorgeous.

Rachel Zeffira – To Here Knows When The music nerd/music journalism community had a collective nerdspasm this month when My Bloody Valentine put out their first album in 20+ years. Although I love listening to them in certain moods, they kind of seem like the kind of band you only need to own one album. I think this cover actually illustrates what's great about their music more than their own music does, if that makes any sense. With all of the effects and studio magic stripped, it shows that there is actually a skeleton of real songcraft supporting the whole dreamy mess. The video below sounds even better to me than the album version. 

Jim James – State of the Art - A.E.I.O.U. Just. Can't. Get. Enough. Jim. James.