Thursday, December 18, 2008

Casual Listening - Best Albums of 2008

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

December 19, 2008

I’m having fun putting together end-of-the-year playlists for you – expect those in about two weeks. Between now and then, you’ll get a special Christmas edition, and this week’s feature:

Best Albums of 2008

1. Mavis Staples – Live: Hope at the Hideout (gospel)

The sound of the rebirth of hope in America. One of the best gospel voices of the last half-century makes the civil rights movement sing again. The live versions of these freedom songs are an order of magnitude more powerful than last year's studio release "We'll Never Turn Back." I fell for this album a week ago when I first heard it, but in the days after Obama's election these songs sound different. There's a whole new resonance to "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" when a piece of that prize has been won. Goosebumps, goosebumps, and more goosebumps.

Listen to Mavis Staples "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize"

2. 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.

Listen to Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra “Freedom Trail

3. Chuck Ragan & Austin Lucas – Bristle Ridge (country)

Achingly beautiful string band balladry. Thick country-gospel harmonies overlay clawhammer banjo, fiddle, and mandolin. These musicians represent the new generation of folk in the best of the American tradition, sans prefixes like "freak" or "anti."

Listen to Chuck Ragan and Austin Lucas "Judgement Day"

4. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (folk)

Quiet intensity of lush vocal harmonies over a simple guitar. Gorgeous songs to curl up with on a snowy night.

Listen to Bon Iver “Skinny Love

5. Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple (R&B)

Gnarls Barkley throws down the gauntlet on nothing less than the reinvention of soul music. The original soul drew heavily on church traditions, and here the electric organ, choral singing, and a revivalist tone are evident. For being such a precisely produced record, the percussion sounds organic: drum kits, handclaps, shakers, and claves. This album also contains some of the most danceable tracks since Chubby Checker did the Twist. I can only hope that in 30 years, the wedding song that brings all ages onto the dance floor is by Gnarls Barkley.

Listen to Gnarls Barkley “Run [I’m a Natural Disaster]

6. Left Lane Cruiser – Bring Yo’ Ass to the Table (blues)

Left Lane Cruiser's high-voltage blues sound is downright nasty. Blistering electric slide guitar and leering vocals distill old-school Mississippi blues down to its rowdiest essence. This band has some major mojo.

Listen to Left Lane Cruiser “Set Me Down

7. 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.

Listen to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Albert Goes West

8. John Zorn – The Last Supper: Filmworks XXII (classical)

Zorn draws on ancient polyphony and modern harmony to create a gorgeous film score. The resonance of five voices and occasional drums opens a sacred space that alternates between the transcendent and the primal, a sort of A Capella "Rite of Spring."

Listen to John Zorn "Dance for the Vernal Equinox"

9. The High Decibels – The High Decibels (rap)

Sherman, set the Way Back Machine to 1986, to the endless party that was the golden age of hip-hop. The High Decibels recapture the fat beats, scratch DJ fills, and stay-out-all-night lyrics of the era. Guitar riffs throughout connect the duo to even older rivers of blues.

Listen to The High Decibels “That Dude

10. Buena Vista Social Club – Buena Vista Social Club at Carnegie Hall (world)

A decade after the fact, you can finally hear what all the fuss about BVSC was about. The pristine production of the original studio release made these masters of Cuban son sound like a museum piece instead of a dance party. The concert recording has the hot sound and live energy that characterize the roots of salsa. If BVSC is still on your "I should listen to that someday" list, listen today, and listen to them live.

Listen to Buena Vista Social Club “El Cuarto de Tula

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Casual Listening -- Understanding Cadillac Records

Casual Listening


December 12, 2008

Understanding "Cadillac Records"

How big was Chess Records?

Walk into Buddy Guy's Legends blues club in Chicago and make your way to the north wall. You'll find yourself staring at a mural of Mount Rushmore. The faces? Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Little Walter - the heart of the Chess Records lineup.

That big.

"Cadillac Records" is this season's star-studded musical biopic. Unlike "Ray," "Walk the Line" or "Dreamgirls," it's not about a singer or a band. It's about a record label. A couple of Jewish kids in Chicago who sold Blues records to a Black audience and ended up changing the course of music. It's the most important record label you've never heard of.

The Chess Records story revolves around electricity. Nobody knows who first decided to plug in a guitar to play the Blues, but Muddy Waters gets the credit for it. That innovation took what had been folk music from rural Mississippi and made it noisy, brazen, and dangerous. The Chess brothers knew they were onto something, and developed a roster of musicians who could deliver that sound. Little Walter increased the volume by driving his harmonica through an amplifier, and Willie Dixon wrote a raft of indelible songs that shook with his trademark swagger.

Chess came to encompass a who's who of the musicians of the day. Howlin' Wolf is still the best blues voice ever recorded. Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker, who between them put the "Rhythm" in Rhythm & Blues were among the Chess artists who didn't even make it into the movie. Chuck Berry and Etta James came relatively late to Chess, but were arguably the best-known of its artists. Chess records alumni now boast eleven seats in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

That big.

For a new audience of African-American migrants who moved North with the Blues, the sound coming out of Chess studios was electrifying. Remember that up to this point, the Blues was what Count Basie played. Chess was barroom, not ballroom. It was the kind of Blues you could find at the outdoor Maxwell Street Market barking amidst the trinkets and tamale vendors.

An ocean away, another audience discovered Chess. Despite the fact that Blues records were nearly impossible to find in England, a group of young musicians started hunting them. They coveted a music that was muscle and grit, sex and sass. Like the suburban hip hop kids that would make the same Odyssey decades later, the Blues allowed these young Brits to step into a colorful world that became more real to them than their monotonous lives.

You know these kids. Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and a handful of musicians that would go on to form such divergent bands as Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac. There was also a group who decided to name their band after the Muddy Waters hit "Rollin' Stone." They called one of their first records "2120 S. Michigan," the address of the Chess Records studio.

That big.

Muddy Waters famously sang "The Blues had a baby, and they called it Rock & Roll." Chess Records was the delivery room.

If you want to hear the Chess sound for yourself, check out this collection of the originals that Cadillac Records is based on. If you're really hardcore, the DVD's of the American Folk Blues Festival filmed for German TV has video of these musicians at their best.

Casual Listening Feature -- Best Kids Music 2008

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

December 12, 2008

I save December for special features because new releases trail off (you should still check out the new Common album – it’s good). I promised a feature on Cadillac Records, which appears at I’m turning over the reins this week to Lee Winkelman, who sent me a top 10 list of kids albums from 2008. It rocks. I’ve been jamming to They Might Be Giants number songs all week.

When my son Henry was born in 2004, I vowed that I wasn’t going to play him any music that I wasn’t willing to listen to. Over the years, I have played him lots of music that was created for adults. I think the Beatles are probably that band that is played most often for kids today, followed in popularity by the Ramones. But I also began investigating kids music scene. All the energy that I used to put into finding the best new indie rock or the latest release from a forgotten sixties soul singer or that great singer from Brazil, now I put into finding good children’s music. It turns out we are living in the golden age of children’s music. Ten or twenty years ago, most kids music was made by educators. Now the best kids music is made by real musicians. The artists in indie rock bands like the Del Fuegos, the Bad Examples, Ida, Jason and the Scorchers, and the New Amsterdams didn’t make it big with adults, but they are making a good living by recording and performing good music for children. And big names with thriving adult careers are increasingly making music for children. Do you want a hip-hop kids record? We got it. A country kids record? You have to decide whether you want to hear alt-country, mainstream country or bluegrass kids music (I’ll take all three!). We’ve got jazz, folk, power-pop, punk, funk, and all sorts of other kids records. This is the best of all possible worlds!

Kids top 10:

-Justin Roberts - Pop Fly. He remains the master of kids pop-rock. Tuneful enough for the kids, but rocking enough for the adults. Occasional clever word play, and real kids subjects that never talk down to the kids. Also, great horns. I defy you not to enjoy the title song.

-Scribblemonster & His Pals: Songs No Character. Scribblemonster records are always a bit uneven, but their best songs are great power-pop rockers. Thankfully, they lost the cartoony voices this time (thus the “no character” in the album title). It contains the self-confessed worst dance song ever: “Do the Utility Pole” – a favorite of me and my almost five year old son.

-Randy Kaplan: Loquat Rooftop. A great, prolific singer-songwriter whose past triumphs include a kids version of the racy Hesitation Blues (“Can I get some grape juice now or must I hesitate?) and a folk, quasi-bluegrass version of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” The new ones has the usual mix of originals and covers, lots of folk and taking blues.

-Medeski, Martin & Wood - Let's Go Everywhere. A fun, Jazzy record, mixing accessible jazz instrumentals.

-They Might Be Giants - Here Come the 123s. More educational, zany fun from the best kids music group in the country. Thanks to TMBG, my son knows what a nonagon is (it’s a nine-side shape).

-The Terrible Twos - Jerzy the Giant. When they are not playing kids music, this band is called The New Amsterdams. If you weren’t listening to the lyrics, you would think you were listening to another good adult record straddling the line between power-pop and Americana.

-Dan Zanes - Nueva York. The godfather of today’s indie kids music. This time, the music is all sung in Spanish and incorporates a wide variety of Latin styles, yet somehow always sounds like Dan Zane. I love his bad Spanish accent.

-Funky Kids - Various Artist (New Orleans musicians). Great musicians stretching out on classic kids songs. I love George Porter Jr.’s funky, jazzy version of “Whole World in His Hands.”

-Kimya Dawson – Alphabutt. Not a radical departure for this artist best known for the Juno soundtrack. Weren’t all of her records kids records?

-The Rock and Roll Coochicoo Revue - Various Artists (Boston indie rock musicians). Catchy indie rock kids songs by Boston’s hippest musicians, including Dan Zane’s brother Warren. Can a Del Fuego reunion be far away?

Runners up:

-The Jimmies - Make Your Own Someday. My son loves this record more than me. It’s catchy music, but it doesn’t hold an adult’s interest as well as the top ten records. They make great videos though.

-Brady Rymer - Brady Rymer and the Little Band that Could. Good blue collar, Springsteen-esque kids rock.

-Baby Loves Hip Hop Presents the Dino-5. I love the odd numbered kids hip-hop songs, featuring Dinosaur rappers. I just don’t want to have to listen to the even numbered kids story.

-The Hollow Trees - Welcome to Nelsonville. Folky, bluegrassy fun. You feel like you are sitting and picking with family and friends.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Casual Listening - Cadillac Records, Vicente Fernandez, Neil Young

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

December 5, 2008

! Cadillac Records – Original Cast (soundtrack)

The doesn’t come out until after the Casual Listening deadline, so I can’t yet say it’s a must-see. I can definitely say that the soundtrack is a must-hear. Some of today’s most important stars recreate the golden age of Chicago Blues in the 1950’s. Beyonce pulls off Etta James surprisingly well, and Mos Def nails Chuck Berry. Expect an essay from me next week on why Chess Records matters. Meanwhile, take some time and discover, or rediscover, what Muddy Waters was all about.

Listen to Cadillac Records – Jeffrey Wright “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man

* Vicente Fernandez – Primera Fila (Latin)

Primera Fila translates as “front row” which is where you’ll be experiencing this concert by one of the most important singers Mexico ever produced. The material is primarily super-romantic Ranchera ballads, and with a full orchestra behind him, he’s able to add in a couple of killer Mariachi numbers. The live sound

Listen to Vicente Fernandez “Guadalajara

* A Filial ­– $1.99 (rap)

If you ever doubted the global reach of hip hop, A Filial will set you straight. Inventive beats use Brazilian instruments – drums, cowbell, flute – for a Samba-esque sound. Lyrics flip between English and Portuguese, but with A Filial, the music itself is the message.

Check out A Filial’s MySpace page here

* Neil Young – Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 (folk)

The side of Neil Young that I first fell for was the wide-eyed young folksinger. This album documents a pure distillation of that persona. He runs through solo acoustic versions of some Buffalo Springfield material as well as several of his own tunes. The moment that this captures is one of unapologetic innocence, just a kid and a guitar at a coffeehouse in Ann Arbor. Neil Young in 1968 was America’s Nick Drake.

Listen to Neil Young “Expecting to Fly

Teslim – Teslim (World)

Gorgeous string duets with violin and an array of Middle Eastern lutes. Soothing, profound, quietly joyous music.

Listen to Teslim “Camila’s Song

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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