Wednesday, June 25, 2014

mid-year pop music report

Pop music continues to evolve and amaze. Here are some CDs I've been listening to. I have no idea how many of these will make my end of the year list, but for what it's worth, here are a dozen CDs in heavy rotation in my car CD player and at home in the disc changer. Seems a sure bet something here might catch your fancy, too!  

Antlers – “Familiars”. In an interview in Pitchfork,  The Antler’s primary songwriter Peter Silberman dropped Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void”  film as an inspiration for the band’s  2014 effort: “There are different ways to look at death and they don’t have to be depressing at all.” Like both “Hospice” and “Burst Apart”, “Familiars’’ is another trippy, introspective plunge into the netherworld of death and dying. But if you’ve heard this band before, you’ll know this also means another emotionally enthralling trip to a world of transcendence and beauty. “Intruders” and “Surrender” are two slowly developing songs that produce swirls of keyboard, horns and electric guitars  in ways that make the Antler’s music groundbreaking on a grand scale.

Arc Iris – Arc Iris.  Last year, Jocia Adams, a long standing member of the Low Anthem, Providence’s notable folk rock collective, left the band to form her own ensemble, called Arc Iris. I caught her set at the Boot & Saddle in April and it’s easy to see why the slow shuffle Americana music of the Low Anthem may have felt inhibiting to her. Her new collection of songs have an aural sweep that feels mostly like majestic prog rock from the mid-1970's.  Adams sounds liberated on this record, a fresh new voice worth finding.

Beck, “Morning Phase.”  After a six-year hiatus from recording, Beck came back this spring with one of his best recordings, “Morning Phase.” After several records that wallowed in reflective self-pity, Beck’s songwriting on this effort suggests the songwriter has finally come back around to smell the roses and enjoy the taste of honey again. The songs are more fully developed by his band and the music feels less stripped down that previous records. Sonicly, it’s his most ambitious and lush recording since “Sea Change.” A triumphant return to form for one of America’s most enigmatic recording artists.

Laura Cantrell,  “No Way There From Here". Cantrell’s girlish country warble  is in fine fettle on this new collection of well-crafted folk rock songs, her first release of original songs in nine years.   In Pop Matters, Josh Koch notes “the recording quality is stunning, there’s  a serious warmth to everything…. It’s an acoustic audiophile’s dream come true.” A pleasing mélange of instruments helps to elevate Cantrell’s recordings out of the realm of pedestrian country music into something that feels more organic and accomplished at the same time. Pedal steel, slide guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and electric guitars all blend into one distinctively wonderful album.

Anansy Cisse – “Mali Overdrive.”  Folks who know my musical tastes know already I’ve long been enamored by Mali musicians. Ali Farka Toure ,  Amadou and Mariam and Rokia Traore have all ended up on my end of the year list in the last five or six years. This year’s list is likely to include this beautiful collection of songs from Anansy Cisse, another great Mali artist whose legend is just beginning. The music is delicate and intricate, constructed on a foundation of traditional bass guitar and ngone and soku,  one and two stringed instruments in the guitar family indigenous to West Africa. The calabash, an instrument fashioned out of a gourd and strung with beads, provides percussive sounds. Cisse’s bluesy guitar and earthy, expressive vocals give this African music a distinctively American feel.  Worth finding and savoring.

“Invisible Hour,” Joe Henry.  Henry’s latest effort is a collection of powerful songs that investigates the inner-workings of marriage. The songs are reflective set pieces that delve into the subject matter with sensitivity and insight, full of observational moments and tiny telling details that have always been the songwriter’s forte. Without ever pointing the finger or placing blame with his characters, Henry brings both the joys and heartaches of marriage to this cycle of songs that make his listeners think and feel their way through the labyrinth of love. It may be the most remarkable exploration of the sacred institution since Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.”  

Jon Langford – “Here Be Monsters”. The former front man for Britain’s Mekons has long brought a touch of Billy Bragg political populism to his craft.  Langford’s been living in the states long enough to know the more things change, the more they stay the same. Thankfully, we still have his critical eye and sense of sarcasm to carry us through the day. “Be Here Monsters”, played with his new musical collective Orchard Skulls, is worthy of his best, most chaotic work with the Mekons. A mature, seasoned songwriter, working at the top of his game.

Ought. “More Than Any Other Day.”  This one came as a recommendation from my 30-year old son. The kid’s got great taste! (Great singing chops, too!) Ought is a Canadian band that got together during the student protests in 2012 when the provincial government in Quebec tried to raise tuition by 75 percent, provoking school boycotts. Although none of the eight songs on “More Than Any Other Day” deal specifically with this political movement, they seem to channel the anger of those supercharged “Maple Spring” days. If these guys sound like anarchists, you know why. Played with the finger-pointing fury and fervor of American bands like Social Distortion and Flogging Molly.

Parquet Courts, “Sunbathing Animal.”  Parquet Courts manages to sound resoundingly fresh and relevant, despite wearing their musical influences proudly on their sleeves. “Sunbathing Animal” sounds alternately like Pavement, the Velvet Underground, Ween, Wire and Television, sometimes all at the same time. This post-modern mash-up of some of punk rock’s greatest bands  does more than honor the genre. Like most great bands, they seem to reinvent it and call it their own. “Black and White” has a propulsive pace that is downright addictive. “Sunbathing Animal” takes the perspective of a house cat trapped in an apartment. Primal punk: don’t punt! Purchase promptly!

Cookie Rabinowitz – “Four Eyed Soul.” My local public radio station has been playing this local neo-soul singer with the improbable name of Cookie Rabinowitz for about a month now. I caught his show at the “Make Music Philly” festival in a public  park in  Roxborough on Saturday evening. It was a dance fest of the first order. Rabinowitz sounds like he’s taken Sly Stone’s template and run it through a meat grinder with his Kanye CDs. Lyrically whimsical and unabashedly soulful, Cookie’s got a good thang going on with “Four Eyed Soul.” Don’t let those sports goggles fool you, folks! This cat ain’t no freakin’ geek. “I Want to Text You With My Mouth” and the CD's first single, "Self-Loathing". are as infectious as pop music today gets. Cookie cooks!

Temples - "Sun Structures" -- Temples – “Sun Structures”.  Noel Gallagher proclaimed  Temples, the hottest new band in Britain. But try not to hold that against them!  The Temples, following Tame Impala’s template, showcase a wide variety of 60s psychedelic sounds that owe as much to California acid-tripping bands like the Doors, the Electric Prunes and the Jefferson Airplane as much as the pop sensibilities of England’s T-Rex and the Zombies. Lead singer James Bagshaw carries a charming confidence through his performances on these songs. If “Rubber Soul” or the Monkee’s foray into psychedelic music, “Head” float your boat, you’ll probably have lots of fun listening to this updated version of music inspired by Haight-Ashbury. 

War on Drugs, “Lost In a Dream.”  You might have thought losing a talent like Kurt Vile would leave the gas tank empty for this local band. But War On Drugs, fronted by songwriter Adam Granduciel, seems to have lots of mileage left to go. While Vile has gone on to make his own terrific solo records, Granduciel has made his most relevant, ear-pleasing album to date. His trademark tasty guitar work is in evidence on the CD’s first song, the sprawling “Under the Pressure.” The rest of the record seems locked under the opener’s mesmerizing spell.  If you love guitar rock, you’ll love this.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The best Father's Day present ever: the accomplishment of a lifetime

Tomorrow morning, a new  community English center will open in the small town of Nueva Guinea, Nicaragua.

The moment it opens, it will be the largest foreign-language library in the entire country. It will change the culture of the entire town. It may help enable hundreds of lower and middle class Nicaraguan children and students in the region learn a new language, one that will increase their chances of rising out of the Third World and starting a better life.

Countless of volunteers worked on the building; washing and painting walls; scrubbing and waxing floors; building desks and book cases. Nearly $7,000 in various projects was raised to get the building refurbished. Hundreds of people in the United States donated a wide range of books to this project, from children's picture books to hardback, cloth-bound literary classics.

No one worked harder than my daughter, Isabel. It was her vision for the library that started the ball rolling. It was her personal project for the Peace Corps. It was her never-ending cajoling of needed supplies and donations that made this community center a reality. It was her baby from day one. Tomorrow morning, the baby is birthed and Nueva Guinea has a proud new library.

That this should come on the day before Father's Day is one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me. Sheer coincidence, for sure. I don't care much.

I am one very proud dad.

Isabel, you are one amazing person!!