Friday, May 30, 2008

Casual Listening Extra 5-30-08

Casual Listening

May 30, 2008

We've got a winner for the "Style Pandora" contest. David Soleil wins for his station "Funkyazz Radio." You can listen to the station here. Lucia, one of our Pandora judges, describes the station this way:

"I'm impressed by how much careful work David has put into that station. It's very creative, but also enjoyable to listen to, which is not always easy to do! I like that the musicians are all stellar, but in quite different styles; from be-bop to big band to funk to latin jazz to salsa. Also, he picked musicians who specialize in different instruments, which makes the station even more varied: tenor sax, trombone, trumpet, keyboards, percussion (congas!) and of course, vocalists.

"I also found it interesting that David seeded or thumbs-upped two different versions of two classic songs. (Caravan and Pass the Peas, two versions each) The versions of Caravan, in particular, are *quite* different.

"It's a cheerful, energetic, playful station!"

I agree -- this is good listening. For his entry, David will receive a Pandora t-shirt and will be guest writer for a week on Casual Listening. Congratulations!

Casual Listening 5-30-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

Style Pandora contest winner at

May 30, 2008

* Fonseca - Gratitud (world)

Massive crossover pop appeal. Fonseca's roots are Vallenato - uptempo accordion dance music from Columbia. It's a barely noticeable backdrop to glistening pop melodies with global cache.

* Jenny Scheinman - Jenny Scheinman (folk)

If you've run the last Gillian Welch CD into the ground, here's your new soundtrack. Jenny Scheinman actually takes on a wider range of material, including some country-rock, blues, and even a hint of jazz along with the heartbreakers. I'm a sucker for sentimental folk, and Scheinman's album hits the sweet spot. A second release this week, Crossing the Field, showcases her award-winning violin skills.

* Al Green - Lay it Down (R&B)

One would be tempted to say they don't do "make-out" music like they used to, except that Al Green is still making great albums. If you've never spent time with his falsetto cry and string-enhanced band, it's time to treat yourself.

* J-Live - Then What Happened? (rap)

Smart lyrics and jazz-inspired production put this in the top tier of recent hip-hop releases. Vibes and muted trumpet back up rhymes alternately personal and political, but always thought-provoking.

In the blog this week: Style Pandora winner

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Casual Listening Extra 5-23-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

May 23, 2008

! Billy Boy Arnold– Billy Boy Sings Sonny Boy (blues)

Jukehouse revival, updated with the utmost respect for the original. Acoustic harmonica, upright piano, hollow-body guitar, and a minimal drum set peg the sound of this 2008 release closer to 1958, the golden age of Chicago Blues. Sonny Boy Williamson made some of the most influential blues recordings of an even earlier time, the 1930’s. Although his style influenced nearly every harmonica player that came after, Billy Boy Arnold’s tribute is the first in modern times to capture the spirit of the Sonny Boy’s genius.

* Donna Summer – Crayons (dance)

This is the album Madonna wished she released this year. Funky dance grooves with huge appeal for multiple audiences. Kids today hearing this would never believe that this is the same Donna Summer that sang those disco oldies.

* Foxboro Hot Tubs – Stop Drop and Roll!!! (rock)

Brash and beautiful garage rock with equal parts loud attitude and 60’s pop innocence. You’d never guess this band to be the secret masquerade of Green Day (which it is). Talent by any other name still smells as sweet.

Orchestra BaobabMade in Dakar (world)

Mambo from the Motherland. Their sound of Cuban rhythms refracted through Senegalese sensibilities – smooth guitars and vocal gymnastics propelled by subterranean funk – is definitive Afropop. After 40 years, Baobab is at the top of its game.

Honorable Mention

The Ting Tings – We Started Nothing (rock)

Edgy, fun Brit-pop, a slightly less-flamboyant cousin to the B-52’s and Franz Ferdinand.

Free Kitten – Inherit (rock)

Indie pop royalty get together for an album of low-fi space rock. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon leads this too-cool-to-let-you-in-on-the-joke experience.

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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Casual Listening 5-23-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

Style Pandora Contest Deadline Extended to Tuesday, May 27!

Contest rules at

Check out for this weeks reviews, where Jeff’s brother Dave helps to pick the best of the week. Donna Summer, Foxboro Hot Tubs, Orchestra Baobab, and more. Meanwhile, today’s guest writer is Matt Dufek, the second of the Stump Pandora winners, who’s also got one of the best critical ears of anyone I know.

May 23, 2008

An interesting party question I like to ask is “What albums are your recent classics?” Meaning, what albums have you have kept in fairly regular rotation for the past 5 or so years? This is an interesting question to me because it supersedes the notion of “artistic merit” and gets to what I think the most beautiful aspect of music: connection. What albums connect with you? Which have become a regular part of your life (perhaps even in spite of yourself)?

Here’s my list in no particular order:

Mooney Suzuki – People Get Ready

The only album I still listen to from the barrage of garage-rock revival at the turn of the millennium. Punky, rock n’roll, rump-shakers with a great back-beat for a fast drive. Play this loud and you cannot help but feel cool, even if you drive a Corolla. In fact, the crappier the car, the better this music would sound in it.

For fans of: The White Stripes, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, MC5

American Analog Set – Know By Heart

Soothing and at times dreamy while retaining a vibrant pulse with skittering percussion, vibraphone, hushed vocals, chiming guitars and that warm, fuzzy organ. A cozy sonic blanket.

For fans of: Luna, Stereolab

The Busy Signals – Baby’s First Beats

This album makes me smile every time I play it. Built with samples of cooing female vocals, loungy horns, flutes, strings, and lo-fi beats and sung in a boyish unassuming tone. Relaxing and groovy, great for a sunny ride on a spring day.

For fans of: Beck, Beulah,

The Constantines – The Constantines

I’m gonna be cheap and quote someone else’s review; I think it’s such a spot on description: Bruce Springsteen fronting Fugazi (an arty, D.C. punk band). Gritty, bluesy, punky and earnest. No pretentions here, just honest-to-goodness rock n’ roll. Also, possibly the best live act out there.

For fans of: Fugazi, Bruce Springsteen, Spoon, The Clash

M Coast – Say It In Slang

Breezy, jazzy, Steely Dan-esque tunes. Charming boy/girl vocals with a background of light electric and acoustic guitars, horns, piano, vibraphone and plenty of flute. Honestly, the flute really makes this album awesome. Music for wine and dinner parties and really just about any other event or non-event.

For fans of: Steely Dan, Of Montreal, Astud Gilberto

Mojave 3 – Puzzles Like You

This album should have made Mojave 3 more of a household name than The Shins. Sun-shiny pop with upbeat tempos and brilliant hooks. Guitar pop at its very finest, catchy yet down-to-earth.

For fans of: The Shins, Yo La Tengo

The Features – Exhibit A

Driving bombastic rock with plaintive vocals, raging guitars and 60’s sounding organ. My wife and I saw them open up for the Raconteurs and The Features blew away the headliner. Did I mention the killer rhythm section? Dang!

For fans of: The Hives, Superchunk, Kings of Leon

The Minders – Cul-De-Sacs & Dead Ends

Jangly, Beatles-esque indie pop. Imagine Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices fronting Neutral Milk Hotel. This is probably my favorite album right now.

For fans of: Guided By Voices, The Beatles, Apples In Stereo

Stereolab – Margerine Eclipse

How do you explain this band to someone who has never experienced the lounge/jazz/bossanova/psychedelia/krautrock/electronica fusion that is Stereolab? For a real treat, listen to this one on headphones. Gorgeous.

For fans of: Air, Burt Bacharach, Björk

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Casual Listening Extra 5-16-08

Casual Listening


I couldn’t give an objective report on the new Elvis Costello album – I’m not enough of a fan to do it justice. So I called on a reader I knew would do it justice. Thanks, Mehrdad Azemun, for this review.

Elvis Costello and the Imposters – Momofuku (rock)

Any review by any critic of any Elvis Costello album has to start with the classic quote, attributed to David Lee Roth: "You know why critics love Elvis Costello and hate Van Halen? Because critics look like Elvis Costello."

And let’s not forget the other quote attributed to Costello himself: "Rock critics love Van Halen and hate me because rock critics look like me but want to party with David Lee Roth."

Who said which first? I dunno, but I figure both are true since they’re both on the internet. The only thing that’s not true is that I, the critic in this instance, look like Elvis Costello, though a stranger told me the opposite at a Chicago falafel stand back in 1998.

But no matter what, David Lee Roth is still right - this critic loves this piece of work. Momofuku is a solid, energetic rock album. Costello and the Imposters blast out of the starting gate with three catchy rockers featuring tight work from the backing band. After so many years, the old reliables are still there: Costello’s acerbic and playful lyrics, delivered with his precise and still-healthy pipes; enjoyable melodies that don’t sag under the weight of his themes; and let’s never forget Steve Nieve’s punchy keyboards. There isn’t a weak track to be found here. With 30-plus years behind him, it’s clear that Costello, backed by a strong set of musicians, has many a good guitar lick and acidic lyric still in him yet.

Casual Listening 5-16-08 Jeff's Reviews

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

May 16, 2008

! Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra – Harriet Tubman (jazz)

An ambitious and profound jazz opus, in a category with Gershwin and Ellington in its appeal to both classical and jazz sensibilities. Labeled a “jazz oratorio,” Shelby combines a big band with a chorus, and draws material across the jazz tradition from basic blues to oblique chords to tell the story of the great Underground Railroad conductor. This is one for the ages.

* Emmanuel Jal – Warchild (rap)

If you haven’t caught the news that rap is a global music, this album will bring you current. Jal is a former child soldier from Sudan, and his message reflects the weight of the war he’s been through. African musical influences show prominently here, with choral singing and drums heavy in the mix. Jal’s lyrics manage to be righteous without being self-righteous. On one track, he delivers the strongest insult in the nicest possible way: “50 Cent, I ain’t hatin’ on you/ But still I think it’s my civic duty to warn you/ you’re being played by the man.”

Babylon Circus – Dances of Resistance (world)

A tasty cultural stew strong in reggae, ska, and Eastern European folk music. Sharp political lyrics alternate between English and French.

Stein Brothers Quintet – Quixotic (jazz)

Great bebop-inspired originals and some standards from a strong double-saxophone ensemble. This is the second release this year that’s reassured me about the next generation of jazz. The Stein Brothers have talent that will continue to grow in years to come.

Vetiver – Thing of the Past (folk)

An album of unearthed treasures written by 60’s and 70’s folk troubadors, recorded by these darlings of the indie folk underground. The sound comes closest to the Grateful Dead’s “American Beauty” – broad harmonies and easygoing melodies, colored with banjo and 12-string guitar.

The Bellrays – Hard Sweet & Sticky (rock)

Classic-style guitar rockers rule this album. Lisa Kekaula’s vocals drive the Bellrays right up to the edge without losing control of the vehicle.

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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Casual Listening 5-16-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

Check out for Jeff’s reviews, including Marcus Shelby, Emmanuel Jal, Vetiver, and more. There’s a reader review of the new Elvis Costello album, and the rules for the new “Style Pandora” contest are there, too. Meanwhile, I’m turning today’s e-mail over to Jerry Pinzino, one of the Stump Pandora winners, and one of the people who most inspired me to love music. He’s also my dad. Here’s his take on one of the classical world’s biggest news stories:

May 16, 2008

Riccardo Muti has agreed to become the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Tiger Woods of orchestral music is coming to Chicago to conduct the CSO, and it is a surprise for many people. This classical superstar turned down the New York Philharmonic and a few months ago even denied he was in the running for the Chicago Symphony position. Hopes are very high, not only that he will stimulate audience attendance with exciting musical performances of the new and the old, but that he will be very good for the orchestra’s bottom line. Muti will conduct at least 10 weeks each season in Chicago, plus tours.

Muti, a Neapolitan, was music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1980-1992, and he made appearances with the Philharmonia Orchestra (London) for many years, beginning in 1972. Most notably, he was appointed music director of La Scala (Milan) in 1986. His tenure there ended in 2005. Muti is coming to Chicago starting in 2010 and is replacing Daniel Barenboim. Interestingly, Barenboim replaced Muti at La Scala, albeit as principal guest conductor. It seems classical musicians play a very serious game of musical chairs.

There will be much interest in Chicago over how the orchestra will sound under his direction. We will not know, of course, until he gets there, but if you are interested in the Muti sound with other ensembles, there are plenty of recordings to choose from. If you are not a classical music aficionado, there are many Muti recordings of classics that have broad appeal. For opera, you might try Mozart’s Don Giovanni. On the other hand, if you are a fan of a particular opera, there’s a good chance he has recorded it – Mascagni, Bellini, Verdi, and others. In the choral music genre there is his Seraphim recording of Orff’s Carmina Burana – a favorite work of mine, though not my favorite recording. It does have its moments, and it’s worth the price of the album just to hear Arleen Augér sing Dulcissime.

On the orchestral side, Maestro Muti has an album of Tchaikovsky later symphonies. It is said Tchaikovsky wrote 3 symphonies, numbers 4, 5 and 6. Apparently it took 4 tries before he got really good at it. If you have not blown out a speaker recently, there is a recording of the 1812 Overture on the album as a bonus. If you like a big, brassy sound, you may want to get his recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – very exciting.

The Maestro will be 68 when he assumes the CSO podium in his new role, making him the oldest incoming music director ever for this ensemble. He may be getting up in years, but I predict his vibrancy and energy will be compelling for the almost-certain sellout audiences he will attract. I look forward to his coming.

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Friday, May 9, 2008

Style Pandora Contest

Casual Listening


Style Pandora Contest

Far more interesting than finding Pandora's pitfalls is discovering its potential. You can create some really cool radio, and even listen to each other's stations. So the new contest is Style Pandora - create the coolest, most creative station you can imagine using Pandora.

We've enlisted celebrity judges for this one: 2 of Pandora's crackerjack staff will join me in deciding the winner of this contest.

We've also upped the stakes. In addition to a guest spot on Casual Listening, winners will receive a free Pandora t-shirt.

The rules:

1. You may use any feature currently available through Pandora to create your station. Multiple songs and artists, guiding the program with thumbs up/thumbs down, etc. are all encouraged.

2. Judges will listen to your station directly through Pandora's "share” feature. The ultimate criteria are the judges’ own superiorly discriminating tastes in music.

3. E-mail your name and the name of your station to me at Deadline May 23. We’ll post winners the following week.

In the spirit of Casual Listening, genre-bending stations are encouraged.

Have fun and good luck!

Stump Pandora contest winners

Casual Listening


May 9, 2008

Stump Pandora contest winners

We had three Pandora stumpers submit, and I'm going to give all three guest spots on Casual Listening in the weeks to come. They each won in a way I didn't expect, which was by finding a band that Pandora had never heard of. Each is indicative of a blind spot in the program: world beat, comedy, and small-shop indie rock (although Pandora's a lot better at this than you'd imagine). Here are the winners and their choices:

Bob Palmer picked Omme Kolsum, one of the most celebrated voices of Egyptian song.

Jerry Pinzino picked the Smothers Brothers, a musical comedy duo.

Matt Dufek picked Aden, a small but influential indie rock band.

My personal stumper was Weird Al Yankovic, which Pandora has, but which generates a radio station that doesn't focus on satirical music. Here was a sampling of what the station gave me this morning: Styx “Renegade,” Three Dog Night “Joy to the World,” Barenaked Ladies “One Week,” and Men at Work “Who Can it Be Now.” Although some of these songs are laughable, none are deliberately humorous. To Pandora’s credit, it also produced Tenacious D’s “The Metal,” which I gave thumbs up to, but which didn’t seem to fix the station.

After first announcing the contest, I sent an e-mail to Lucia from the communication’s team at Pandora, who's been very helpful. She sent an e-mail about how Pandora is improving, especially in the world music arena:

“We're working hard to build up our international music collection and accompanying musicological analysis. Pandora is rather US-centric right now; that's going to change as we introduce more music from around the world to our site -- very soon, we hope.

We started this major effort by releasing thousands of Latin and Brazilian songs onto Pandora. We have a large collection of other types of "world" music amassed already (as well as Native American, Cajun, Klezmer, Hawaiian, etc). These aren't live on our site quite yet because we need to have a critical mass of matchable songs in order to offer a reasonable listening experience on Pandora.

Each new type of music we add will require analyzing the music differently than the styles we currently do -- each different style of music requires different listening skills and music theory knowledge on the parts of our Music Analysts. It's a massive undertaking, but we're really excited about it! We're expanding the kinds of music we stream every day, and our analysts are going through new training as we ‘speak.’”

She talked further about including comedy:

“We are working on the ability to create ‘walled gardens’ where certain types of music exist behind a sort of one-way glass. With this example, for instance, Madonna Radio would never play the Weird Al parody.”

She and I also hit upon an idea for a new and improved Pandora contest. See my next post for details on this.

Casual Listening 5-9-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

Stump Pandora Contest Winners and New Style Pandora Contest at

May 9, 2008

! Neil Diamond – Home Before Dark (rock)

Diamond's expressive vocals touch heart and soul on this collection, with none of the bombast usually associated with his music. Producer Rick Rubin has worked his stripped-down, acoustic magic with the iconic songwriter, the same treatment responsible for Johnny Cash's late career resurgence. This record should gain Diamond a new generation of followers - I can testify it's earned at least one.

* Nine Inch Nails – The Slip (rock)

It's a happy coincidence that the vanguard artists of the digital download have been producing good music. Radiohead made a splash last year with a "pay-what-you-want" album, and now Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has released his third experiment with the format, and this one won't cost you a dime. His music has an aggressive rock sound that's distorted to the point of static. The Slip is one of NIN's more accessible records in a while, with a handful of anthems mixed in among the creepy atmospheric instrumental tracks. Go to and start downloading now, then come back and read the rest of this list. By the time you're done reading, you'll have a brand new album, artwork and all.

* Peter Walker, Echo of My Soul (world)

Virtuosic Spanish guitar work. A selection of solo pieces, written by the artist but evocative of the spirit of old Andalucia. Olé!

Sierra Hull – Secrets (bluegrass)

Impressive string picking on the debut album by this bluegrass prodigy. Her silky singing voice encourages comparisons to Allison Krauss, and she's got serious mandolin chops to boot. Hear her now, because you'll be hearing a lot more about her in years to come.

Supreme 7 – Another Yes (gospel)

This is my kind of Gospel, a small, talented ensemble behind the kind of voice that echoes the roots of Otis Redding and Ray Charles. A great selection of religious tunes in traditional style, ranging from slow and mournful to funky and joyous.

Jason Matthews – Hicotine (country)

Rock-edged contemporary country. James has all of the hallmarks of a Nashville star, but with a voice that's edgier and more compelling. Classic country lyrics: "It’s people like me that give people like me a bad name."

Firewater – The Golden Hour (world)

Paul Simon went to Graceland; Firewater ended up on the seedier side of town. Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink worldbeat band backs up a snarling singer-songwriter. Heavy Asian influences, including Hindi film music and Banghra.

Scott Hamilton – Across the Tracks (jazz)

Blues-based tenor sax riffs invoke a simpler jazz era. Tunes that are easy to love, improvisations that stay close enough to home, and a good grove propel this crowd-pleaser. Guitar, bass, drums, and Hammond organ on several tracks play strong supporting roles.

In the blog this week: Stump Pandora winners, New Style Pandora contest

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Casual Listening Extra 5-2-08

Casual Listening


May 2, 2008

Def Leppard – Songs From the Sparkle Lounge (rock)

Pop metal is severely out of fashion these days, which is why this album is such a treat. Def Leppard has aged surprisingly well, and one song after another on this set sounds like a radio-ready single…if radio still gave a hoot about pop metal.

The Underachiever’s Club – Madonna, Mudcrutch, Portishead, The Roots, Steve Winwood, Carly Simon

If you’re wondering what happened to all of this week’s highly anticipated releases, well, I’m left wondering too. Madonna’s album is good, not great, and she’s been great so often…Mudcrutch is Tom Petty in an even rootsier vein than usual, and is fine if you happen to like Tom Petty…Portishead and The Roots are both somber albums, getting lots of critical praise, but not from this critic…Steve Winwood is more interesting than he’s been recently, but is still stuck in lite rock purgatory…Carly Simon’s album shows some depth, but it lost me when she started rapping about three songs in. Am I expecting too much from these heroes? I’m drawn to music that moves me, and with all due respect, I’d take this week’s featured six over this half dozen any day of the week.

Casual Listening 5-2-08

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

Special Contest! Stump Pandora at

May 2, 2008

* Lil Mama – VYP: Voice of the Young People (rap)

Unbelievably infectious rhymes from a teenage phenom. I dare you to listen to the lip gloss song (lip gloss?!?!) and not be hooked. Lyrics about peer pressure and college visits are a welcome change of pace from typical streetfighting rap fare.

* Estelle – Shine (R&B)

Rich harmonies and a shifting background of 1960’s R&B, reggae, and hip hop supports a vivacious voice. Some echoes of Lily Allen, but Estelle brings a meatier sound. This Brit soul songstress is an impressive talent.

Slackers – Self Medication (ska)

Old-school Jamaican jump-up from a new school American band. Slackers shoot for soul rather than speed, and this album shows their skill in creating the good vibe.

Maná – Arde el Cielo (Spanish rock)

Maná is the U2 of the rock en español world. Grandiose, often political arena rock that draws an enormously loyal following. If you’ve never heard Maná before, this live set will help catch you up to speed. If you know their work, you’ll appreciate the crowd energy as the band delivers recent work and older hits, not to mention the stray Mexican folk ballad.

Newton Faulkner – Hand Built by Robots (rock)

Faulkner’s strong songwriting chops are evident throughout this album. He’s among the best of the pleasant sounding folk-rockers that have gotten attention in recent years, although I think Faulkner is head and shoulders above the Jack Johnsons of the world.

ConstantinesKensington Heights (rock)

Two shades bluer than power pop. Fuzzed up, satisfying rock that drifts between driven and brooding.

In the blog this week: Def Leppard, The Underachiever’s Club

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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