Thursday, November 29, 2007

Casual Listening 11-30-07

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

November 30, 2007

New releases slow to a trickle after Thanksgiving, so Casual Listening will be home to special features over the next few weeks to help wind up the year.

Seven Blues Albums That’ll Change Your Life

Blues is the granddaddy of all modern American music. In the blues you can see rock, hip hop, R&B, jazz, gospel, and house music all stripped down naked and beguiling. At first glance, it’s not much to look at – kind of scraggly and out of shape, not as young as it used to be – in a word, real, like the rest of us. From that realness pours steam heat fueled by years of shameless living. Once you’ve breathed it, you’ll never be able to put it out of your mind.

Blues is an attitude, a tone of voice that grabs you by the shoulders and shakes your body down. Blues doesn’t hide behind electronics, overdubs, and slick production. All it has to hook you with is a wail, shout, and moan. For the best blues singers, that’s more than enough. A skilled blues player can take a harmonica or slide guitar and make it cry so sad you’d swear it were alive.

Blues is the opposite of transcendent. Its songs are pasted together from the stuff of this world – pleasure and pain, sex, death, and heartache. Its lessons aren’t fancy or glib, but they run miles deep and generations long. Here are seven of the best you’ll ever hear:

Kenny Wayne Shepherd – Ten Days Out

When this guitar prodigy turned 30 last year, he packed up a band and a film crew and headed for blues country to play with some of the last living blues legends, many approaching three times his age. They recorded in kitchens, backyard barbecues, and juke joints, capturing styles old and new in their natural surroundings. This album is a ticket to a private concert with some of the finest blues artists you’ve never heard of and may never hear again. Four of the musicians that appear here are no longer with us.

Buddy Guy – Live! The Real Deal

Ask any Chicago Blues fan about the greatest concert they’ve ever seen, and you’ll get the same response: seeing Buddy Guy play live at his club. Screaming electric blues from one of the greatest showmen in the business, Buddy’s live sets can only be described as a religious experience. Having G. E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band behind him raises the wattage on this mind-blowing performance.

Paul Reddick and the Sidemen – Rattlebag

If there were even three touring bands today that sounded as tight as this, no one would spend sleepless nights worrying about the future of the blues. Reddick’s swagger animates a broad assortment of styles that reach across decades, and keeps it simple enough to let the raw soul of the music speak for itself.

Junior Wells – Hoodoo Man Blues

Nothing comes close to this set in terms of pure badassedness. Wells channels the funk of James Brown and the cool of Miles Davis with a thick streak of cocked-hat attitude. His singing and harmonica playing are barely restrained, like a tiger on a leash that’ll snap at any moment.

Howlin’ Wolf – His Best

Possibly the most distinctive voice ever committed to wax, to the point of making actual wolves jealous. From the heyday of 1950’s Chicago blues, Wolf’s growl burns tread marks on the inside of your skull while the band stomps alongside.

Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers

Taylor plays frenetic slide guitar through the world’s oldest amplifier – I’ve gotten higher fidelity from two tin cans tied together with string – which is, of course, what makes his sound so delicious. Bruce Iglauer started a record label just so he could record Hound Dog Taylor, and I’d be surprised if after hearing this album you wouldn’t do the same.

Mississippi Fred McDowell – You’ve Got To Move

This is old school, some of the deepest blues there is, nothing but a slide guitar and the voice of the apocalypse. McDowell plays the Mississippi delta style common in the 1930’s, recorded thirty years later when technology let you hear the music instead of just the hiss and pop of aging phonograph records. I had a chance to meet the once-young blues fan that took a microphone to McDowell’s living room to bring back these diamonds, and thanked him for ensuring that my grandchildren will one day have the chance to hear and love this music.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Casual Listening Extra 11-23-07

Casual Listening

November 23, 2007

Live Albums Part 2: Daft Punk, Opeth

In last week’s blog, I said that certain types of music benefit from the intimacy and immediacy of a live setting, while others don’t. These are two great examples of music that does benefit, largely because it’s not music you tend to hear live. Daft Punk plays Euro-dance-rock, stuff made for clubs that almost never gets played live. The fact that Daft Punk does play live, does it well, and does it in robot costumes has made their shows famous, and the energy of the show comes through brilliantly on “Alive 2007,” out this week. Opeth plays progressive metal, the lovechild of Slayer and Pink Floyd, very aggressive music broken up by folk and atmospheric interludes. Contemporary metal tends to be a studio art, where the darkness of it is accentuated. In a live setting, you’ve got a cheering crowd behind the band to remind you that this is still social music, not a completely misanthropic art form. It works, and the variety in Opeth’s music makes for an interesting listen. Both of these albums are recommended.

David Buchbinder – Havana/Odessa (world)

Two cities half a world away, and one musician who’s not afraid to try to bring the two together. Cuban rhythms and old world Klezmer find common ground in jazz, and the mix works better than one might expect.

Casual Listening 11-23-07

Casual Listening
a review of cool new music

November 23, 2007

! Amy Winehouse – Frank (soul/R&B)

Amy Winehouse before they tried to make her go to rehab. This album is a sassy blend of danceable beats, confident vocals and blunt lyrics that will make you blush. Amy always makes you feel like you’re in a smoky, kind of dirty, 1940’s night club with her horn and piano accompaniment. In rehab or drunk… Amy can lay it down, I LOVE this album.

* Jean Grae – The Orchestral Files (rap/hip-hop)

Grae’s commanding voice, loaded lyrics and self-proclaimed, “Old School” rhymes will leave YOU feeling “schooled”. A dj spinning tracks in the background and live clappers will compel you to nod your head, and listen up. Her tone is Lauryn Hill-esque, and her opinions are strong. This album might make you want to bust out your own rhyme.

Lamar Campbell – New Song New Sound (Christian/gospel)

Lamar gives you everything you might expect from a gospel singer. He has a powerful yet gentle voice, a killer gospel choir behind him and band that will cause your body to unconsciously sway in your chair, and make a believer out of you. Halleluiah!

Flunk – Personal Stereo (electronica)

Attention Regina Spektor fans – you will need this album. A bit slower than Ms. Spektor likes to lay her tracks, this chilled out collection is perfect for rainy afternoons and days when you feel like you’re the star of your own Indie film.

Richard Cole – Shade (jazz)

Sometimes edgy, sometimes perfectly flowing, Richard Cole’s album, “Shade” is an easy jazz album to pick up. The piano seems to walk in the track “Moxy,” and each solo leaves you wanting to clap. Jazz novices will easily enjoy this album and jazz snobs will appreciate the perfection of the musicians and the collection’s classic feel.

In the blog this week: Live albums part 2: Daft Punk, Opeth; David Buchbinder’s Salsa/Kelzlmer fusion

* highly recommended
! highest recommendation
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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Casual Listening Extra 11-16-07

Casual Listening


November 16, 2007

Are Live Albums Worth the Trouble?

Well, it depends. If you’re Os Mutantes, then no. If you’re James Taylor, then yes. Os Mutantes is a hip Brazillian rock band from the 1960’s that’s enjoying a revival. The music is cool, but unless you’re a superfan, it’s a lot like what’s on their other records, except with poorer sound quality. Taylor’s One Man Band, on the other hand, is a definitive performance for the 70’s balladeer. Folk music tends to translate to a live album – there’s something about the intimacy and immediacy of the performance that better expresses the essence of the music than the studio. Check out Simon & Garfunkel’s Live From New York City, 1967 to hear some of the best versions of their classics. Rock, on the other hand tends not to translate, unless the musicians are doing something radically different from what’s already on record.

Queensryche – Take Cover (rock)

The band puts aside the full metal jacket to give an unusual selection of rock covers. Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine,” The Police’s “Synchronicity II,” and Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Almost Cut My Hair” all share space on this disc. More interesting for its novelty value than its musical value, it’s still pretty interesting.

Casual Listening 11-16-07

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

November 16, 2007

* Joan Sebastian – No Es De Madera (Latin)

This is what you’re missing out on when you skip past the Spanish station on your radio. Listen through the oompah accordion, tuba, and heavy brass, and you’ll find Sebastian sings well-crafted songs of love and loss that owe as much to the Beatles as they do to traditional corridos.

Cedar Walton Trio & Dale Barlow – Manhattan After Hours (jazz)

To hone the album title further, this feels like a jazz club in Harlem in 1957 after hours. A classic-sounding tenor saxophone quartet with super chops. If you like to chill out with Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, you’re going to want to add this to your collection.

The Hives – The Black and White Album (rock)

Full-on distortion-fueled garage rock. Crank this and go nuts.

LCD Soundsystem – 45:33 (dance)

Your new favorite work-out soundtrack. A single track whose title matches its length, the various phases of the piece are specially designed for interval training on the stairmaster, complete with warm-up and cool-down. You’ll find a variety of samples, including horns, chimes, and retro laser sound effects, all settling into an extended house groove.

In the blog this week: Are live albums worth the trouble? Os Mutantes, James Taylor, and covers from Queensryche.

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Casual Listening Extra 11-9-07

Casual Listening


November 9, 2007

Me’Shell Ndegeocello – The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams (jazz)

I don’t know how I missed this when it first came out about six weeks ago. An extremely inventive album by a woman who remains a musical mystery. I’d file this under jazz fusion, specifically the jazz of Sun Ra and the funk/rock/soul of Stevie Wonder. This one won’t be getting mainstream radio airplay anytime soon, but if you want to hear a mad genius at work, check this out.

Sones de México – Esta Tierra es Tuya (Latin)

This one was beat out for the Latin Grammy, but is still a great listen. You can hear about the band from NPR’s Morning Edition story this morning by clicking here. The head-turner on this album is a version of Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks.”

The Eagles – Long Road Out of Eden (rock)

This release is a Wal-Mart exclusive. Wal-Mart can do their own tip sheet if they want you to know about it.

Casual Listening 11-9-07

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

November 9, 2007

* Jay-Z – American Gangster (rap)

Most gangsta rap gets by glorifying guns, drugs, money, and sex while begging the question “Why are you telling me this?” American Gangster is an hour’s worth of “because.” Jay-Z comments on the conditions that give rise to the gangster, the way its mythology perversely feeds into the American dream, and the ultimate emptiness of outlaw success. An intricate backdrop of 70’s funk and soul is in itself remarkable, but the real power here is in the storytelling. This is a disturbing record, the kind of art you can argue with, but not dismiss.

* Sigur Rós – Hvarf - Heim (rock)

Rainy day pop brightened with an angelic falsetto. Reverb-heavy bells, piano, and electronic tones create a sound you can easily get lost in. Entrancing sad innocence.

Loren Connors – As Roses Bow: Collected Airs 1992-2002 (classical)

A collection of 43 short, solo, electric guitar pieces in a deeply contemplative mood. The experience is like flipping through an artist’s sketchbook – the beauty lies in beholding a series of unfinished, unvarnished creative ideas.

Dan Mangan – Postcards and Daydreaming (folk)

On any given night, in any given coffeehouse in America, there’s a wide-eyed young man curved over a guitar playing songs he hopes are as good as this album sounds. Heartrending songs linger over a country-inflected backing band to make a soundtrack of blue reminiscence.

Robin & Linda Williams– Radio Songs (folk)

Sweet harmonies from the perennial folk duo recall the golden age of country radio. These are all live performances from A Prairie Home Companion and other assorted public radio programs. Close your eyes and picture yourself listening to a 1940’s version of the Grand Old Opry, or a clear channel broadcast of the Carter Family.

In the blog this week: Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Sones de México, Eagles.

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Casual Listening Extra 11-2-07

Casual Listening


November 2, 2007

Blues Traveler – Cover Yourself

I was a college freshman and aspiring harp player in 1991 when I heard “But Anyway” on the radio and found myself stammering “That’s a harmonica?!?!” Sixteen years later, I’ve stopped keeping up with the band, having decided that it all sounds the same after a while. Enter Cover Yourself, which includes eleven radical reworkings of fan favorites, and which sounds fresh as the day it first knocked the wind out of me. The big stuff is stripped down (“Defense and Desire,” “NY Prophesie”), the slow stuff gets funky (“100 years”), and the good stuff gets even bluesier (“Mountains Win Again,” “Carolina Blues,”). Really satisfying déjà vu – familiar, but I’ve never heard it like this before.

Dylan Soundtrack Redux

Bob Dylan has already been done six ways from Sunday, so hearing so many fresh interpretations of the work is really a remarkable accomplishment. Thirty-four of the tracks on I’m Not There are 24 karat gold, with a couple of brass junkers along for the ride. First the good stuff. The album opens with Eddie Vedder’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which nods to both the Dylan and Hendrix versions while going its own organ-drenched direction. Sonic Youth takes on the movie’s title track, which shows up in the original Dylan version on the bonus tracks. Listen to these two back-to-back, and you’ll hear the frazzled sound in Dylan’s voice that makes it a natural for Sonic Youth. So many other highlights – Richie Havens sounds young again on “Tombstone Blues,” while Pavement’s Steven Malkmus sounds ancient on “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Karen O’s driven, jagged “Highway 61 Revisited” is the high point of the collection. Iron & Wine and Sufjan Stevens both dislocate the originals in exquisite ways through their orchestration. Willie Nelson and Los Lobos both add a South of the border breeze to their selections. Jeff Tweedy and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot reach across generations to re-enact the naked vulnerability of “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Listening to Cat Power I did a double-take thinking it was actually Dylan singing. Yo La Tengo, The Black Keys– the list goes on. A perfect experience is interrupted only by Jack Johnson’s sacrilegious gumping through “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” and Mason Jennings’ inept “The Times They A-Changing.” Still, these aren’t enough to tarnish the package. You’ll not regret the hours you’ll inevitably spend with this album.

Casual Listening 11-2-07

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

November 2, 2007

! I’m Not There: Original Soundtrack (rock)

The songs from the upcoming Bob Dylan biopic are an embarrassment of riches. Big names like Eddie Vedder and Jeff Tweedy, living legends like Willie Nelson and Richie Havens, and buzz bands like Iron & Wine and Cat Power all do powerful takes on Dylan. The sounds of these songs are all over the map, but what comes through brilliantly is the emotional bite that you hear in the best of Dylan. If you hate Dylan, this album could change your mind. If you love Dylan, some of these songs will put you in tears. More commentary on this one in this week’s blog.

! Andy Bey – Ain’t Necessarily So (jazz)

Andy Bey’s voice is Grade A maple syrup: smooth, rich, and distinctive. He sings jazz standards on this album – “All the Things You Are,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and the Gershwin title track – but he could sing a dial tone for 45 minutes and make the list. Don’t miss a truly great jazz vocalist at work.

Youssou N’Dour – Rokku Mi Rokka (world)

Youssou N’Dour’s voice is one of the most distinctive in the Afropop world – half carnival, half call to prayer. A modest band featuring guitar, drums, and accordion brings the beat while allowing the vocals to shine.

The Starkweather Boys – Archer St. Blues (rock)

These guys nail the 1950’s rock sound so well, Chuck Berry himself would be proud. Go beg, borrow, or steal a classic convertible, spin this disc, and go cruising.

hollAnd – Love Fluxus (rock)

Hip, spare rock with way cool electronic support. Quirky, catchy, well-crafted indie pop.

Leni Stern – Africa (world)

Warm jazz guitar and fragile vocals over West African twilight. Choral backup, African Kora, and talking drum help create a distinctive fusion drawing deeply from the subcontinent.

In the blog this week: Blues Traveler, Dylan Soundtrack Redux.

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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