28 February 2009

Two reasons Calexico is my favorite band (from surethings)

I have to admit being a little worried when Calexico released Garden Ruin. Yes, I'm supposed to be open minded and allow artists to go their way, but GR just didn't hit me like any of the previous records did. A sigh of relief, then, when Carried to Dust was released last year. I hate the "return to form" tag as much as anyone, but it really is just a grand record.

Since is the first mention on surethings, I'll go ahead and post two iconic Calexico songs. The first song up is, for me, the embodiment of the band and its inimitable sound: Crystal Frontier. No other song so perfectly combines all of the elements: subject matter, sound and style, that make up the Calexico sound.

Secondly, The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Honestly, could anyone else pull this off? Je taime, baby!:

The band has many great songs, and there is a bunch of video over at YT. If I were to recommend a record I'd have to recommend at least 3-4: Hot Rail, the ep Even My Sure Things Fall Through, Feast of Wire and The Black Light. I also love their collaboration with Iron & Wine: In the Reins. Google, surf and enjoy.

27 February 2009

Amanda Palmer does Radiohead

I still say that when she gets more control over her voice she'll be twice as compelling. She also has chops enough not to pander to the neo-goth-caberet crowd, but I can live with it--what's life without a little weirdness?

23 February 2009

Plucking the Baroque: Walter Gerwig and Bach

I am a devotee of thrift stores, not least because it is easy to pick up great music for (ahem) a song. My latest find: a Japanese import cd (Nippon Columbia/Musicaphon, 1992) of Walter Gerwig's Bach recordings on the lute. The photo at left is the same recording, but not as cool as mine--my liner notes are entirely in Japanese.

If I didn't cruise the thrift stores I'd never have sought out this fantastic 1964 recording of Bach on the lute. To be honest, I had never heard of Mr. Gerwig before picking this up for a paltry $1.99. The cd transfer is immaculate and could have been recorded last week rather than 45 years ago.

Generally the lute, like the nylon-stringed guitar, does not fare well in ensemble playing--it is too quiet an instrument to be heard clearly amidst a group of players. But as a solo instrument in the hands of a talented player it is every bit as compelling as the cello or the violin. And it has a more versatile and varied sound than its descendant, the guitar.

Bach's music for the lute (and transcriptions of music written for other instruments) sounds best unornamented, particularly given the contemplative and quiet nature of the lute, and here Gerwig shines. The simple rhythms of the music are allowed to flow freely, and what might sound sparse on the piano (or, egad! the harpsichord) is refreshingly straightforward here. The Archiv recording in the YouTube video below may or may not be from these sessions (I don't believe it is) and it certainly doesn't do the Nippon recoding justice, but it's something I can include to give a general idea of the sound, though the analog hiss is entirely absent on the cd.

The cd is a generous 67.35 in length, and all of it is compelling. If you are one of those who prefers your classical as background music for turtleneck and cabernet parties it will work that way, too, though the sheer beauty of the music might get you talking about something other than the usual art party gossip.

If it doesn't, your soul may already be terminally damaged.

# Performer: Walter Gerwig
# Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
# Audio CD (April 15, 2000)
# Number of Discs: 1
# Format: Import
# Label: Musicaphon
# ASIN: B00004SZWZ

12 February 2009

Sunday Smiling: Beirut on Letterman (YouTube video)

It was nice to see Beirut on the Letterman show the other night. A bit curious, though, that they didn't play anything from the forthcoming March of the Zapotec/Real People: Holland "double ep", due 02/17/09. Perhaps the available musicians aren't up to speed with the new tunes (shades of that canceled Euro-tour).

But as much as certain critics like to paste Beirut as "pseudo" world-folk, Beirut can be credited with making a kind of world music that the indie scene can get behind. It says less about the band and a bit more about the bandwagon that the music has to be couched in a certain chaotic gypsy clothing. But in the end the music speaks for itself: refreshing sounds well-played.

It's fun to watch naysayers gripe about Zach Condon. While they were complaining about the in-authenticity of Gulag Orkestar, he'd already moved into French song influences in The Flying Club Cup and now some Oaxacan sounds on the new ep. Hopefully it will be some time before the whingers catch up.

09 February 2009

The Weird Turn Pro: Animal Collective and Merriweather Post Pavilion

It can't really be their ninth record, can it? As Animal Collective plugged along throughout the 00s releasing their unique sonic artifacts, it came to seem as though they'd been around forever. You can be forgiven for not hearing or knowing more about this unclassifiable band. The records are not exactly your typical radio fodder: each seems like something unearthed in a future age, like the detritus that Wall-E socked away. They are all unique and each belongs to its own genre of off-kilter folk/electronic/world music. It's even been proposed that AC constitute a new folk music. There might be a point in there somewhere--electronic music, samples and dubbing are becoming less a separate genre of music than a kind of musical currency or method that is more common than the traditional acoustic/electric dynamic that has controlled popular music since, well, since there has been pop music. But when reviewers start tossing around terms like "freak folk", "experimental" and "psych-pop" you can bet there's no real consensus and that you're in uncharted waters, musically speaking.

Merriweather Post Pavilion has met with nearly universal acclaim and has already been dubbed the album of 2009 in some corners. Personally, I'm not much for Top Ten lists--there's far too much new music released each year for anyone to honestly get their ears around and it's unfair to claim the breadth of knowledge that would be required to make such a list, but I can see this disc making a lot of friends. For one thing it is irrepressibly upbeat--the band sounds like they're romping through an aural funhouse. The lack of guitar (if there's one here it is hard to recognize) has forced the band to go heavy on the synth and samples. In lesser hands this could create more problems than it solves but here the music washes over disjointed beats and the vocals ride in and out of the noise like a bodysurfer riding the tide. And if all that doesn't give you an idea of what the music sounds like, well, it is difficult to describe. I suppose you could call it an upbeat OK Computer, which is also a contradiction in terms. I've heard it described as dance music, which is really pretty funny: I can't imagine what dancing to this would look like--perhaps an epileptic fit?

There is a lot of hyperbole rolling around out there with regards to this record and I won't add to it. It is fun to listen to, even though I've always found electronic music fatiguing. It is peppered with memorable lyrics about love, family and growing into the ill-fitting clothes of adulthood. It is discouraging for a reviewer to fall back on the phrase "it rewards repeated listenings" but in this case it is true. If someone like Coldplay had made this record it would already be in half the cd players in the world and hailed as the new Sergeant Pepper. "Am I really all the things that are outside of me?" goes one Zen-like refrain that owes something to Alan Watts, or Jung. With the record industry suffering through a transformation in which the single track iTunes/Amazon download is the new standard, Merriweather Post Pavilion is a reminder that, when inspired, bands can still make records that hold together as more than the sum of their tracks.

Length 54:42
Label Domino
Producer Ben H. Allen, Animal Collective

Track listing

  1. "In the Flowers" – 5:24
  2. "My Girls" – 5:41
  3. "Also Frightened" – 5:14
  4. "Summertime Clothes" – 4:30
  5. "Daily Routine" – 5:46
  6. "Bluish" – 5:14
  7. "Guys Eyes" – 4:31
  8. "Taste" – 3:53
  9. "Lion in a Coma" – 4:12
  10. "No More Runnin" – 4:23
  11. "Brother Sport" – 5:59

05 February 2009

Hot-Rod iPod Mod: Rapid Repair's 240gig Retrofit

If you're anything like me, poor bastard, your iPod was full after a few weeks. Diligently uploading about 10-15 percent of my pop/rock/country collection and a very puny portion of jazz and classical maxed out my 30-gig iPod video long ago. Anything added now requires removal of something else. Yes, there's probably a lot of junk on there, but removing it is a hassle I just don't want to deal with. This is the problem with technology in a gluttonous consumer culture--you can never keep up. Even my tower computer's hard drive is giving me ominous warnings about lack of disc space.

Financial realities being what they are, it's not likely I'll be able to splurge ($295) on Rapid Repair's solution to the iPod problem; and for me it would be a stopgap, anyway. Just eyeballing my music collection tells me I'd need maybe three of these 240 gb hard drives--and I'm obviously still buying the stuff. I'm also pondering re-ripping the whole mess at a higher bitrate, which uses up even more space but sounds better through my stereo. I suppose the ideal solution would be to have my entire library in lossless format stored on a personal satellite radio channel that is playable from a Nano-sized device. Is that asking too much?

For those who can afford it, this is the bestest, mostest upgrade available for now.

(photo via Wikimedia commons subject to GNU license)

04 February 2009

Synesthetic Harmony: M.K Ciurlionis's Piano Music: Various Pianists (1982)

Mikalojus Ciurlionis is one of the few artists who is well-known both as a composer and painter. Ask a casual classical music listener and they will recognize the name, and an art student may recall a lecture on symbolism or art nouveau. It is certainly easy to hear the influence of color (chromatics?) on this double cd, released as a Japanese import. At first blush the meditative piano pieces may evoke thoughts of Chopin, but as the music progresses it becomes clear that Ciurlionis had his own ideas to express.

Given the fact that he died of pneumonia at the age of 35, Ciurlionis' output is amazing, more that 250 compositions in all, many of them for the piano, though his symphonic poems In the Forest and The Sea are perhaps better known. This is without mentioning his painting career, which is a considerable part of his legacy. Both in his painting and music he appears to be a man both supremely of and ahead of his time. It is clear there were antecedents for the directions Ciurlionis took in both his painting and his music, but it is also abundantly evident he had influence on his contemporaries (especially visual artists).

At any rate, this generous sampling of his keyboard music makes for compelling listening. Recorded in 1975, the two-disc set is comprised of selections spanning the composer's productive life, from 1899 to 1909, as played by Aldona Radvilaite, Raimondas Kontrimas, Augustinas Maceina, Aleksandra Juozapėnaitė and Birute Vainiunaite (I assume all are Lithuanian pianists--I was unable to locate any information). While the music is pleasurable to listen to merely for its color, harmony and melody, it is just as interesting to listen for the changes that crept in with his maturity: some atonality is introduced into the collections of preludes, fughettas and Lithuanian folk melodies.

It is known that Ciurlionis had a melancholic temperament. Some sources write that it was a bout of depression and subsequent hospitalization that ultimately caused his fatal pneumonia. Thankfully, I am not a biographer and don't have to provide sources, but I can recommend this music. While this particular disc is difficult to track down, there are well regarded collections readily available from the Marco Polo and Celestial Harmonies labels.

(track info via musicperformers.lt):


Four Pieces op. 3
1 No 1 Prelude in B flat minor 2'33
2 No 2 Humoresque in G minor 2'24
3 No 3 Mazurka in B minor 1'17
4 No 4 Prelude in F minor 1'11

Two Pieces op. 4
5 No 1 Nocturn in F sharp minor 3'42
6 No 2 Prelude in F sharp minor 1'30

Two Pieces op. 6
7 No 1 Prelude in F sharp minor 2'36
8 No 2 Nocturn in C sharp minor 4'10

Four Preludes op. 7
9 No 1 in F sharp minor 1'29
10 No 2 Pastorale in D flat major 1'08
11 No 3 in B major 2'13
12 No 4 In A minor Lydian 1'18

Two Pieces op. 8
13 No 1 Mazurka in E flat minor 1'49
14 No 2 Prelude in F minor 3'24

Three Preludes op. 11
15 No 1 In A minor 0'35
16 No 2 Dainelė in E flat minor 0'58
17 No 3 in B minor 2'05

From Three Pieces op. 12
18 No 1 Prelude in D minor 1'49
19 No 2 Postlude in C major 2'06

From Three Preludes op. 13
20 No 1 in A minor 0'44
21 No 2 in G major 2'33

Theme and Six Variations
22 Theme 0'50
23 Var. 1 4'11
24 Var. 2 0'43
25 Var. 3 1'19
26 Var. 4 0'22
27 Var. 5 1'52
28 Var. 6 0'40

Four Preludes op. 16
29 No 1 in B minor 0'48
30 No 2 in B minor 0'40
31 No 3 in D minor 3'20
32 No 4 Epizode from the Symphonic Poem The Sea 0'50

Three Pieces op. 17
33 No 1 Prelude 2'09
34 No 2 Autumn 1'14
35 No 3 Prelude on the Theme of a Russian folk-song 0'37

Theme ”BEEs ACAEs” and Three Variations op. 18
36 Theme 1'47
37 Var. 1 1'47
38 Var. 2 0'52
39 Var. 3 0'57


Three Pieces op. 19
1 No 1 Prelude 1'01
2 No 2 Basso Ostinato 1'25
3 No 3 Nightingale 0'47

Three Preludes on One Theme op. 20
4 No 1 1'05 mp3
5 No 2 3'11 mp3
6 No 3 1'23 mp3

Four Preludes op. 21
7 No 1 1'00
8 No 2 1'59 mp3
9 No 3 0'32 mp3
10 No 4 0'42 mp3

Five Preludes op. 22
11 No 1 1'07 mp3
12 No 2 1'38 mp3
13 No 3 0'30 mp3
14 No 4 0'43 mp3
15 No 5 1'20 mp3

Four Preludes op. 26
16 No 1 1'11
17 No 2 0'32
18 No 3 3'26
19 No 4 2'31

Four Preludes op. 27
20 No 1 1'02
21 No 2 1'57
22 No 3 0'28
23 No 4 1'52

Marios op. 28
24 No 1 1'42
25 No 2 3'07
26 No 3 0'51

From Two Fughettas and Two Preludes op. 29
27 No 1 Fughetta 0'41
28 No 3 Prelude in D flat major 1'35
29 No 4 Prelude 1'27

Three Preludes op. 30
30 No 1 0'48
31 No 2 1'50
32 No 3 1'05

Four Preludes op. 31
33 No 1 1'54 mp3
34 No 2 0'55 mp3
35 No 3 1'02 mp3
36 No 4 1'18 mp3

From Three Preludes op. 32
37 No 1 0'53 mp3
38 No 2 2'02 mp3

Six Preludes op. 33
39 No 1 2'30
40 No 2 1'13
41 No 3 1'06
42 No 4 1'13
43 No 5 1'58
44 No 6 0'50

Fugue op. 34

Aldona Radvilaitė (1-4) (CD 1)
Raimondas Kontrimas (5-8) (CD 1)
Augustinas Maceina (9-12, 22-28, 37-39) (CD 1)(1-3) (CD 2)
Birutė Vainiūnaitė (13-21, 29-36) (CD 1)
Aleksandra Juozapėnaitė (4-15, 33-45) (CD 2)
Aldona Dvarionaitė (16-32) (CD 2)

03 February 2009

Rachel's Nautical Genius: The Sea and the Bells (1996)

On their third full length release the independent, unclassifiable (avant chamber, anyone?) collective Rachel's struck a somber, elegiac chord with The Sea and the Bells. If you think of this as a tone poem as written by Steve Reich or Gavin Bryars you wouldn't be far off. Piano, strings, brass and percussion ebb and flow, rise and fall almost tidally, creating a beautiful if somewhat foreboding sonic landscape, or rather seascape. Generalities, I know, but the music doesn't fit the usual prescribed categories, especially those of pop or even avant-garde rock. It may remind you of a soundtrack to a peculiar seafaring Bergman film. More than worth a listen for those of you who are looking for something a bit different than your usual indie rock or power pop stalwarts. Be warned: track eight made my dog get up and leave the room. He came back when it was over.

Rachel's are the type of band that has been around a long time but always seem to bring something new to the table. You really can't go wrong with any of their discs but this one is a definite must-hear.

John Baker - Bells
Kevin Coultas - Drum set, Timpani
Christian Frederickson - Viola, Matchbooks
Edward Grimes - Drum Kit
Rachel Grimes - Piano, Vibes, Linen Sheet
Thomas Hatte - Contrabass
Sarah Hong - Cello
Ann Kim - Violin
Greg King - Boatswain
Jim Maciukenas - Musical Saw
Matthew McBride - Viola
Eve Miller - Violoncello, Breton Plotter & Notepad

(Track info via allmusic):

AMG Pick

02 February 2009

Neko's Reverb World: Canadian Amp (2001)

It's not as though Neko Case is wanting for critical acclaim or the limited notoriety that is afforded non-mainstream artists. Her last studio release, 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, brought her attention in spades. She has been a star in the "alt-country" firmament nearly as long as she's been recording, and a major one since the near-perfect Furnace Room Lullaby (2000). Her full-length followup Blacklisted (2002) was received with equal critical acclaim and indie adulation. And between those releases was this little interjection released in 2001, an EP recorded just after her move from Seattle to Chicago and featuring cover versions of four tunes by Canadian songwriters, a Hank Williams number and two Case originals. The record was initially sold at tour stops but was later released in more traditional fashion.

While it also met with a fair amount of plaudits, due to its nature it seems destined to remain a stepchild in comparison to her deservedly famous full-length efforts. Which is a shame, because its 23 minutes are packed to the gills with great songs and playing by a host of guest sidemen including Jon Rauhouse, Andy Hopkins, Andrew Bird and Robert Lloyd. With its echo, reverb and haunting harmonies, this could be a soundtrack for a David Lynch western-noir film.

Things start simply enough with "Andy", a tune by Mike O'Neill, which is a simple guitar and vocal number featuring Rauhouse on tenor guitar. The set picks up in earnest with Neil Young's Dreamin' Man which features more fleshed out instrumentation (accordion, Hawaiian guitar, banjo ukelele, electric guitar and Kelly Hogan's spot on backing vocals) and the unforgettable line "...with a loaded gun and sweet dreams of you." "Knock Loud" is another sparsely instrumented piece, with electric guitars by Andy Hopkins, almost a type of reprise of the first track. Case's original "Make Your Bed" doesn't get name-checked much as a favorite track in the reviews I've read, and I'd like to go on record as spotlighting this tune. It sounds like nothing so much as a traditional murder ballad that might be found on some musicologist's field recordings. Led by a reverbed banjo and fiddle, it's a case study in how to make original music that sounds traditional. Lisa Marr's "In California" follows the public domain banjo-twang of "Poor Ellen Smith". I imagine Case must have heard and/or played with Marr during her time in Vancouver, and her song is an inspired choice--a homesick love ballad and surely the first pop/country song to reference "Koreatown". The Hank Williams number "Alone and Forsaken" is strummed and sung over the sounds of rain and thunder but it's Case's voice that takes center stage with Hank's ghostly lyric. "Favorite" is another Case original, totally in spirit with the rest of the record and a fitting closer.

Canadian Amp is not a perfect record by any means. The heavy reverb is mostly a plus in my book but would probably distract some listeners, and the metallic twang of some of the instruments can be harsh at times. But in spite of its weaknesses, this small gem remains a favorite of mine. Case has such a genius for selecting and interpreting covers that it's hard to believe they're not originals. If you're currently Neko-less, I would recommend either Furnace Room or Blacklisted as introductions, but save a spot on your shelf for this.

  1. "Andy" – 1:40 - Mike O'Neill
  2. "Dreaming Man" – 3:46 - Neil Young
  3. "Knock Loud" – 3:08 - Sook-Yin Lee
  4. "Make Your Bed" – 3:15 - Case/The Sadies
  5. "Poor Ellen Smith" – 2:17 - traditional
  6. "In California" – 3:29 - Lisa Marr
  7. "Alone and Forsaken" – 2:42 - Hank Williams
  8. "Favorite" – 3:17 - Case