Thursday, April 24, 2008

Casual Listening Extra 4-25-08

Casual Listening


April 25, 2008

Stump Pandora Contest: At the request of several readers, I tuned into Pandora this week. For those not in the know, Pandora is internet radio courtesy of the Music Genome Project. They’ve dissected what gives a song its characteristic sound, and what other songs that sound is related to. You enter the name of an artist or song, and it’ll create a radio station based on its analysis of your choice. I’ve been outrageously impressed at how good it is. Light years better than what I’ve seen on Rhapsody radio. I tried to give Pandora every curveball I could find. Rebirth Brass Band? All the N’awlins second line funk you can handle. Machito? Not just Latin, but a steady stream of mid-century Mambo. John Adams? A respectable assembly of contemporary classical minimalism and its derivatives. Even fine distinctions: Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” turned up Tori Amos and Tom Waits, but “This Flight Tonight” off the same album, gave Stephen Stills and Ani DiFranco.

I’ve only been able to stump it once, which leads me to the contest. If you can find something that stumps Pandora, I’ll make you the guest reviewer for Casual Listening for a week. If you succeed, you’ve earned the tastemaker’s seat for a world of music lovers.

Here are the rules.

1. Results must be replicable. It can’t just be something that stumps it once, you’ve got to find an artist or song that stumps Pandora consistently.

2. Results must be un-improvable. It doesn’t count if the artist stumps it, but entering a characteristic song by that artist doesn’t (example: I got Ladysmith Black Mambazo to confuse it, because it used some goofy new age album of theirs as source material. Afterward, I built a station on their song “Nomathemba,” I got all choral harmony from around the world, exactly what I was hoping to hear).

3. Multiple-song stations are fair game.

Hint 1 – You won’t stump it with an artist who plays a variety of styles. I built a Miles Davis station with “7 Steps to Heaven,” “So What,” “Summertime,” “Bitches Brew,” and “Mystery” that rotated 4-song blocks based on each. Pandora won that round.

Hint 2 – The one time I succeeded was with an artist or song whose signature characteristic isn’t musical.

You’ve got 2 weeks – deadline May 9th. E-mails to Good luck.

Casual Listening 4-25-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

Special Contest! Stump Pandora at

April 25, 2008

! Nicholas Payton – Into the Blue (jazz)

A soulful, brooding jazz opus that’s gorgeous from top to bottom. This is cool jazz, which means spare, transparent lines suggestive of powerful feeling, but intentionally restrained. Cool is the haiku poetry of the jazz world, and Payton’s trumpet shows both the instrumental and emotional mastery necessary for the form.

! Jack Rose ­– Dr. Ragtime & Pals / Self-Titled (folk)

Some of the best acoustic and slide guitar work you’ll ever hear. Rose’s progenitors are the great blues guitarists of the early 20th century – Blind Willie Johnson’s bottleneck slide and Mississippi John Hurt’s Piedmont-style fingerpicking. He references these and more while still managing to create something new. Rose’s stringwork sparkles like a diamond, each facet reflecting a different quality of light as you turn it over in your hand.

* Dive Index – Mid/Air (electronica)

Warm, expressive vocals contrast well with an electronic chillscape. This is high-quality downtempo – you’ll be listening to this one while the new Portishead gathers dust on your shelf.

* Phil Vassar – Prayer of a Common Man (country)

Catchy backroads tunes with a surprisingly wide emotional range. “This is My Life” is one of the best political songs in any genre to come around this year. Vivid slice-of-life stories and a love ballad to…his Chevy truck. This album shows how good Nashville country pop can be.

Barry Adamson – Back to the Cat (rock)

Evocative of rat-pack era hip swagger, this blues-lounge set is fantastic mood music. Electric keyboard, horns, occasional strings, and assorted electronica give this release a tuxedo-and-martini kind of feel.

The Death Set – Worldwide (rock)

Behold, the spawn of Devo. Over the top Atari-esque skronk with an offbeat sense of humor.

In the blog this week: Stump Pandora Contest

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

Check out the blog at . To subscribe or unsubscribe, or just to say hi, send an e-mail to

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Casual Listening Extra 4-18-08

Casual Listening


April 18, 2008

AsiaPhoenix (rock)

Some reunions are just a bad idea. The original progressive rock supergroup ended up being the butt of a joke in “The 40-year Old Virgin.” The latest version doesn’t even rise to that level.

Justin Roberts – Pop Fly (kids)

Roberts swims in the smart end of the kiddie pool. Musically, I don’t think this is his best album, but Roberts is still an artist to watch – one that parents and kids will both enjoy. Thanks to Allen for turning me on to his work.

The Naked Brothers Band (rock)

Better than you’d expect for Nickelodeon’s version of the Monkees. Harmless Pop with more than a hint of soul. I’d pick Naked Brothers over Hannah Montana for interesting music.

Casual Listening 4-18-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

April 18, 2008

* Apocalyptica – Worlds Collide (metal)

Apocalyptica puts the ultimate metal instrument at the center of the band with not one but (count ‘em) four cellos. The strings actually bring a level of finesse to the melodrama, making for a surprisingly intuitive and compelling meld.

* Tangele – The Pulse of Yiddish Tango (world)

Tango with gusto. Tangele’s vocalist flashes an almost operatic expressiveness, and a violin/piano accompaniment add classy texture. I would never have guessed, but Tango sounds even more romantic in Yiddish.

Morgan Heritage – Mission in Progress (reggae)

Urgent beats and conscious lyrics resonate through a modern sound. Rolling guitar and layered vocals draw deeply from classic reggae and swirl it with American rap and R&B.

Thrice – The Alchemy Index: Vol. 3 & 4: Air & Earth (rock)

The continuation of Thrice’s elemental song cycle, this installment is good deal quieter than the first disc. The air section weaves in glockenspiel and chimes with electric guitar and drums. Earth is a more rustic series, featuring acoustic guitar and barroom piano. A fitting conclusion to a novel project.

The Wilders – Someone’s Got to Pay (country)

Chameleon-like roots group that variously becomes an old-tyme string band, country rock bar band, and folk ballad ensemble. They succeed in each incarnation.

Gossip – Live in Liverpool (rock)

Raw power top to bottom – fuzzed guitar, spare drumming, and killer vocals that whisper and shout with equal force.

In the blog this week: Asia, Justin Roberts, The Naked Brothers Band

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

Check out the blog at . To subscribe or unsubscribe, or just to say hi, send an e-mail to

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Casual Listening Extra 4-11-08

Casual Listening


April 11, 2008

Jackie Green – Giving Up the Ghost (rock)

Americana styled folk-rock, sung in an almost ghostly voice that brings an immediacy to these musical stories. Worth a listen or three – this is music that grows each time you hear it.

Casual Listening 4-11-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

April 11, 2008

! Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (rock)

Sinister and smart, this album rolls up noise, attitude, and libido into one explosive package. Nick Cave hasn’t lost the jagged edge that makes good rock & roll dangerous art.

Colin Meloy – Colin Meloy Sings Live! (folk)

Shards of poetry presented solo and acoustic in front of an enthusiastic audience. The Decemberists frontman’s hip, melancholy songwriting shines in this stripped-down performance.

RoseyLuckiest Girl (jazz)

Rosey has a dulcet voice that works surprisingly well with this jazz-inspired set. She’s steady through an appealing range of torch, cabaret, Bossa Nova, and Broadway styles. No jazz standards, but in this case, none required.

Hayes Carll – Trouble in Mind (country)

This is country music that hasn’t sold its soul to Nashville. Beer-soaked debauchery with a laid-back soundtrack. Mandolin and banjo offer occasional accents to rolling electric guitars.

Steve Reich – The Daniel Variations (classical)

It is difficult to imagine what art can say in the wake of terrorism. Reich makes the attempt in this tribute to Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent gruesomely murdered in Iraq. Reich’s perpetually ordered minimalism is here dashed across rocks of dissonance. An ensemble of voices and strings seems caught between a loss for words and the unbearable consequences of silence. An affecting and unusual piece.

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Pershing (rock)

When I come across a band with a name this cool, I desperately want the music to be good enough so I can put it in print. Fortunately, this band delivers amiable jangle-pop that’s worth a listen. Nice hooks, breezy tunes. Fun stuff.

In the blog this week: Jackie Green

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

Check out the blog at . To subscribe or unsubscribe, or just to say hi, send an e-mail to

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Casual Listening Extra 4-4-08

Casual Listening


April 4, 2008

R.E.M. – Accelerate (rock)

Here's the track list for the E.P. that this album should have been:

  1. Living Well is the Best Revenge
  2. Man-Sized Wreath
  3. Hollow Man
  4. Houston
  5. Accelerate

What’s there is strong, even edgy, but there’s lots of filler. Had they stopped at 5, then we could have called Accelerate R.E.M.’s return to form. Alas.

Moby – Last Night (dance)

Cool, quirky dance beats, layered with interesting samples. To my ears, this one doesn’t have the soul of the blues-inspired Play, but there are still some fun tracks here.

The Sword – Gods of the Earth (metal)

I'm feeling sentimental about the recent death of Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons. The Sword is, too. Here are a sampling of song titles: "The Frost Giant's Daughter," "How Heavy This Axe," and "Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians." Just by listening to this album, you get a +2 bonus on all of your saving throws.

25 Years of Thriller

I had a reader request that for the 25th anniversary of this album, I review it as if it were a new release. Here it is:

Michael Jackson –Thriller (R&B)

Dance friendly and often funky tunes from one of the original Jackson 5. Precise production work includes horns, electric guitar, and a variety of percussion behind Jackson’s suggestive vocals.

25 years ago, this was my favorite album, and I was nervous to review it again, especially given the constraints of the Casual Listening format. I usually make a decision about whether to review an album in the first two, maybe three songs. In this case the first three tracks are Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', Baby Be Mine, and The Girl is Mine. So the biggest hits – Thriller, Beat It, and Billy Jean – didn’t even figure into the equation. Thriller was also an album made by MTV. I can visualize most of these songs – the zombies dancing, the knife fight, Michael flying down the fire escape. Casual Listening doesn't have that luxury. Knowing the cards were against me, I put it on, and realized how good this album really was. Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' is a remarkable song even today, mixing in African rhythms with the funk. I didn't even remember Baby Be Mine, but it held up well. The Girl is Mine...well, two out of three ain't bad. Thriller would have made the Casual Listening list, probably somewhere in the middle of the order with an unstarred review. Maybe an injustice to one of the greatest albums of all time, but not as far off as I expected to be.

Casual Listening 4-4-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

April 4, 2008

* Funky Kidz Various Artists (jazz) released March 4, but too good to ignore.

An A-list of New Orleans funkmeisters give a Big Easy makeover to familiar tunes. Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk doing Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah? If you've got kids, you can't not get this album.

Lalo Mora – Le Canta a Mexico (world)

This musical-geographical tribute to Mora's native Mexico features a series of beautifully sentimental corridos, each an ode to a different region of the country. Honeyed harmonies and traditional style help make this a keeper.

Matthew Ryan – Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State (rock)

Rugged songwriting in an alternative country vein. Raspy-throated vocals, literate lyrics, and a band that balances acoustic and electric guitars over a set of slow rockers. Ryan Adams fans will feel at home here.

Sun Kil Moon – April (rock)

Quiet, introspective folk and troubadour rock. Sun Kil Moon echoes the fragility of British folk icon Nick Drake in uncanny ways.

Van Morrison -- Keep it Simple (rock)

Easygoing blues and R&B. Morrison's at a point in his career where he doesn't have to prove anything to anybody, including himself. He's just singing music he loves, and it shows.

In the blog this week: R.E.M., Moby, The Sword, 25 Years of “Thriller”

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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