Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Year in Recorded Music

The Best of 2011The year provided so many great discs that caught my attention that I’ve expanded my list to twenty. If you’re reading this in a seasonal card and want a more fuller explanation of discs 11 through 20, shoot me an email and I will send you my blog link. Many of the bands on the top half of this list I saw live and most of them were outstanding, but especially Gillian Welch (see at the new Union Transfer venue in mid-October) and Dawes, seen at the TLA in Philly one week later.

1. The Harrow and the Harvest, Gillian Welch (Acony). A harrowing, haunting meditation that explores America’s darkest corners with heartbreaking observations and savvy commentary. Welch’s first studio recording in eight years is a masterpiece. The intricate, delicate, and ethereal interplay between Welch and her partner, David Rawlings, was breathtaking to witness first hand. Welch’s plaintive vocals, interlocked with Rawling’s subtle harmonies and guitar picking, belies the terror of their best tunes. Each song is a journey worth taking and savoring but “The Way It Is,” “Dark Turn of Mind” and “Six White Horses” seem timeless.

2. Nothing is Wrong. Dawes (ATO). The most joyous rock ‘n’ roll record of the year, performed by a band that exudes confidence and is primed to explode. Their show in October was unapologetically fun. The DNA for their music can be found in the music of Bob Dylan and the Band and Jackson Browne. A slow simmering brew of guitars, organ, piano and drums. Taylor Goldsmith’s tasty guitar licks are homages to Browne’s longtime guitarist David Lindley. His vocals performance skew a tad too close to Jackson’s plaintive yearnings for some listeners, but I find them compelling. “Fire Away” burns with passion. “Time Spent in Los Angeles” (despite a tortured rhyme) got more air play. Goldmith’s collaboration with John McCauley and Matt Vasquez (Middle Brother) will delight fans of this Dawes recording and is list-worthy.

3. Tassili. Tinariwen (Anti). An intoxicating brew of acoustic guitars, hand claps and percussion that shares the same simmering sonic palette of fellow African Ali Farka Toure. The musicians in Tinariwen hail from the southern Sahara region of the continent and perform live in nomadic gowns and headdresses. Tassili is named for the part of the Algerian desert where the musicians recorded the music. The band’s name means “empty places” and that serves as an apt similie for the relaxing vibe this music creates. “Tishoumaren” (music of the unemployed) addresses issues of political repression and awakening, and demands of sovereignty. Ibhahim Ag Alhabib, the band’s primary songwriter, sings with an earthy, soulful earnestness that adds an ageless bluesy feeling to the record.

4. Burst Apart. The Antlers (Frenchkiss). Ambient, trippy, blissful pop music. This Brooklyn band makes music that bears repeated listening and will take you to another place. If you like trip-hop music in mold of Portishead and Radiohead, you’ll find the Antlers equally appealing. Pete Silberman’s choir boy warble brings an epic, orchestral sensibility to the music of Burst Apart. Darby Cicci brings seamless support on synthesizers, electronic piano and trumpet. An irresistible truffle of an album, “I Don’t Want Love” and “Putting the Dog to Sleep”, the album’s opening and closing cuts, stand out as the best tracks on an album full of them.

5. I Am Very Far. Okkervil River (Jagjaguwar). Will Sheff was given a big budget for this effort and the money was well spent. He expanded the sonic palette of his previous folk-rock albums by adding cellos, violas, violins and a raft full of brass instruments you'd find in a middle school band room. His experiments don't always work, and the album feels slightly off kilter at times, but Sheff's lyrics are always worth hearing. His eye for details remains sharp and his vision unrelenting. His best songs have always plowed a bloodstained field to find their inspiration. This album is as dark as ever, a stark warning of the approaching Apocalyse. The violence is less personal this time around, but the social warning it evokes is no less powerful or thought-provoking. “Rider” was my favorite song of the year but it’s all worth hearing and thinking about.

6. Yuck. Yuck (Fat Possum). Big meaty hooks. Bouncy melodies mixed with searing feedback distortion amid crunchy guitar riffs. This is a princely mix of power pop and punk, served up in a concoction that recalls the halcyon days of Dinosaur Jr. It grabs you by the throat and won’t stop shaking it. Will make you wish you were young enough to head to your nearest mosh pit. Think Kinks in their head banging swinging London days and you’ll get the idea. (London is their hometown) Find “The Wall” or “Get Away” on YouTube and prepare to have your world rocked.

7. The King is Dead. The Decemberists (Capitol). Colin Meloy’s swansong with the Decemberists is his most radio-friendly collection of tunes and, not too surprisingly, it has sold more than any of his earlier, more acerbic, albums and made the band more popular than ever. I caught two of their shows this year, one in Philly at the Academy of Music and a second show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Both shows relied heavily on the string of hits here: “Don’t Carry It All,” “Calamity Song,” Down By the Water” and “This Is Why We Fight” are among the catchiest tunes Meloy has ever penned. A great folk rock album in the tradition of Fairport Convention and Pentangle.

8. Whokill. Tuneyards. (4AD). Merrill Garbus has such an unforgettable, distinctive voice that this quirky debut stood out as one of the year’s most captivating records. Channeling the Afro-pop vibe of Fela Kuti, Garbus uses her voice more as an additional instrument than as a source of personal angst or political commentary, both of which find a way into her message. Garbus uses drum and vocal loops to create a mesmerizing mixture of wails and beats. When I caught her show this year at Philly’s new concert venue, the Union Transfer, the trickery wore thin on me after about an hour. But my son and youngest daughter (big fans of the band) were all in. “Bizness” is the song to hear if you want to sample this exotic dish.

9. Helplessness Blues. Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop). It took a while to warm up to the Fleet Foxes sophomore effort. To my ears, there was no stand-out single that was appealing as “White Winter Hymnal” on their eponymous first album. But as the year went on, I kept returning to this record and each time I was rewarded with something that stuck with me and sounded fresh. The band’s harmonies, their hallmark, are as soaring and inspirational as ever. Writer and lead singer Robin Pecknold’s arrangements build from creeping, slow crescendos into sweeping orchestral moments of sheer sonic bliss. Besides, the Welch disc, this was the best folk CD I heard all year, in a year that was loaded with folk diamonds. The title track, "Bedouin Dress” and “Lorelei” stand out.

10. Bad As Me. Tom Waits (Anti). Tom’s first studio album since 2004 was worth the Wait. It’s his best collection of original material since 1992’s “Bone Machine,” but far less experimental and weirdly dissonant than that collection. Waits is channeling his inner blues muse on this album and the songs are far more focused (and shorter) than he tends to churn out. Never a great singer, his raspy voice still sounds as if he’s been smoking charcoal and drinking refrigerant. But this time the songs are jubilant and danceable and Waits is in full-tilt boogie party mode. “Get Lost” and the closer, “New Years Eve” are highlights.

The albums that came close to making my list, in alphabetical order:
Chief, Eric Church (EMI); Cannibal Courtship, Dengue Fever, Concord); Small Craft On a Milk Sea, Brian Eno (Opal) Speed of Darkness, Flogging Molly (Borstal Beat); Eye Contact, Gang Gang Dance (4AD); Ancient & Modern, the Mekons, (Sin); Reverie, Joe Henry (Anti) Middle Brother, Middle Brother (Partisan); Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron & Wine (Warners). Soul Time, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings (Daptone); Smart Flesh, the Low Anthem; Dakar-Kingston, Youssou Ndour (Decca); So Beautiful or So What, Paul Simon (Concord); Wild Flag, Wild Flag (Merge).

The top 20 songs of the year: 1) “Rider”, Okkervil River; 2) “Calamity Song,” The Decemberists; 3) “Bizness,” Tuneyards; 4) “Don’t Owe You a Thang,” Gary Clark Jr., 5) “Fire Away,” Dawes; 6) “Dark Turn of Mind,” Gillian Welch; 7) “The Wall,” Yuck; 8) “Portland” Middle Brother; 9) “Don’t Shut ‘em Down,” Flogging Molly; 10) “Space In Your Race”, the Mekons; 11) “Glass Jar,” Gang Gang Dance; 12) “Putting the Dog to Sleep,” the Antlers; 13) “Homeboy,” Eric Church; 14) “You Were Never There,” Diego Garcia; 15) “Get Lost,” Tom Waits; 16) “Barton Hollow,” The Civil Wars; 18) “The Afterlife,” Paul Simon; 19) “Bedouin Dress,” The Fleet Foxes; 20) “Change the Sheets”, Kathleen Edwards.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The complicity of silence: Why Paterno had to go

When giant sequoias fall, the sound drowns out everything in the forest for what seems like days. Whether anyone is there to hear it, the forest knows the sound and it collectively shudders in anticipation.

It hears the rending of ancient roots from the ground; the tumultuous snapping of branches and limbs torn asunder; the swooshing of thousands of leaves in a death spiral that sucks the very soul out of the air itself. Finally comes the thunderous cacophony of the battered trunk, pummeling the Earth with one last vicious cry of anguish.

So to, does it seem, when human legends fall. Perhaps none have ever landed so ingloriously or so awfully as Joe Paterno. The last few days have been excruciating to witness. We knew the ground was weak and the roots decayed. But when the crash came, it was still hard to watch. We wanted to hold our ears.

I bleed blue. I am a Penn State alum who felt honored to have a degree from the university and who choose to go to graduate school because of the presence of Coach Paterno. My grades in high school were not good enough for me to consider applying to Penn State. But after I had secured my undergraduate degree at a small liberal arts university in New Orleans, and worked two years as a reporter in that city, I was accepted into the Masters of Arts program at Penn State.

I was privileged to experience first-hand those glorious fall afternoons in Happy Valley when Paterno would lead the Nittany Lions out onto the field at Beaver Stadium and the crowd would erupt in anticipation. Since I was old enough to take a rooting interest in football, Penn State was my team. They were the good guys. And even something so innocent as the simplicity of their unadorned blue and white uniforms seemed fraught with symbolic meaning.

It was a choice that seemed to speak volumes. Penn State didn't go for splashy uniforms or flashy displays of end zone jubilation. There were no stars or acorns on the helmet to signify individual accomplishments. That would detract from the fact the Lions were a team, first and last. They played nuts and bolts football. Blocking and tackling. No one did it better.

Joe Paterno was the architect of this aesthetic; a builder not just of a football program but of a state of mind that came to be known as "the Penn State way." He developed a reputation for doing things with factitious precision. He set a standard for honesty, integrity and clean living that was compelling to believe in, even if it was hard to live up to. He set the bar so high that it made him legions of enemies among other collegiate football coaches.

Paterno took his leadership position seriously and set a standard of excellence that was never surpassed. I am not talking about his two national championships. (It might have been four or five because some of his undefeated teams never had a chance to play for a ring). I'm talking about his graduation rate. The parents of young men who were recruited by Paterno knew he would push them to excel in the classroom as hard as he would push them on the practice field.

That was his unique selling proposition as a coach. And that is why his legend was deserved. He wasn't just a great coach. He really was a great educator. The fact that he gave millions of his earnings back to the university only confirmed the wholesome feelings alums like me had for him.

His firing last night was hard to watch for folks who idolized him. But, it was well deserved. "I should have done more" was one of the final things he said as he spoke to Penn State students from his front yard. That sentiment might have sounded sincere if he had expressed it eight or nine years ago, when he first heard about the allegations of child abuse concerning Jerry Sandusky, his defensive coordinator.

But after nearly a decade of sweeping Sandusky's reprehensible behavior under the rug, of letting Sandusky use the Penn State facilities and continue to bring young boys into the team's locker rooms, it sounds like a very hallow lament. Paterno told his bosses. But when they did nothing, he did nothing too. Other children lost their innocence and were needlessly molested because of Paterno's complicity in the shroud of silence and institutional conspiracy. Unfortunately for Paterno, and for all of the people he let down, that will be his legacy.

Graham Spanier, the university's beleaguered president, was also fired last night. Two Penn State administrators under Spanier will soon face criminal charges for not reporting Sandusky's offenses to the district attorney. It is a sad, terrible day to be a Penn State alum.

Those of us who still love the school, and who still hold Coach Paterno close to our hearts, can hope for three things to happen now. First, that the families of the young men who were scarred by Sandusky and by the university's complicity in his immoral actions will be able to help their children heal. Secondly, that justice will be served to men who tried to keep Sandusky's heinous crimes a secret.

Finally, that all of us can come to a clearer understanding of the nature of evil and the necessity to bring it to light as quickly as possible. Joe Paterno's silence helped Sandusky harm other children. That's the unfortunate bottom line in this terrible tragedy.

We now know that silence in the face of evil can never be tolerated. Complicity cannot be pardoned.

Paterno's fall will echo in the forest for decades.