Friday, December 18, 2009

Casual Listening - Best of the Decade (2K-D1)

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

December 18, 2009

Here’s what’s left of the end-of-the-year calendar:

Dec 18: The best of the decade

Dec 25 & Jan 1: No reviews, possibly some special features

Jan 8: Launch of the new casuallistening.com

Best of the Decade (2K-D1)

1. Kanye West – Late Registration (rap)

If the story of music in the last 10 years was the switch from the "we culture" of radio and record stores to the iCulture of the digital download, the moral is that we've lost any sort of common musical reference point. Except one: Kanye West. I dare you to find someone other than your grandmother who escaped hearing "Gold Digger" this decade (your grandma may surprise you, too), and I dare you to find any other song this decade that would pass that test.

Beyond this, Kanye's music represents a renaissance in hip hop. Aesthetically, it raised the bar for production, introducing a new "wall of sound" that drew heavily on classic soul as well as electronic music. Lyrically, it broke the stranglehold of gangsta rap, unmasking and embracing the music as the province of nerdy Black kids far more than actual thugs. Kanye is responsible for defining the Chicago School of hip hop, which inspired artists such as Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest as well as rejuvenating older heads like Common through brilliant production work. All this in addition to Kanye's production work on several definitive albums by Jay-Z.

Kanye has given us some of the most enduring pop music of the decade, with indelible hooks set against exquisite sonic backdrops. There's a musical complexity to much of his work that will be rewarding listeners for decades more.

Listen to Kanye West “Touch the Sky

Honorable Mention: Common – Be; Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor; Jay-Z – The Black Album; Q-Tip – The Renaissance, Outkast – Stankonia

2. Green Day - American Idiot (rock)

By the middle of the decade, the absurdity of the Bush years was beginning to collapse on itself: two failed wars, torture scandals, and a hurricane made worse by government ineptitude. All this the result of an administration that was democratically elected. Twice.

There was only one possible response, and although the album wasn't explicitly a political rallying cry, young America embraced it as such. American Idiot became a giant upturned middle finger to the Bush administration and all those who blindly supported it. That it came from a punk band was fitting, although in 30 years punk has only turned out a handful of pop anthems of this magnitude.

American Idiot is driving energy, tuneful melodies, and tight vocal harmonies. Green Day manages to create a more penetrating sound than seems possible for a 3-piece guitar band. Slower pieces like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” take the same core thread of alienation and pull it inward. This album will be remembered as the one that captured the zeitgeist of the Bush years, tied it to a tree, and drove a stake through its heart.

Listen to Green Day “American Idiot

Honorable Mention: Radiohead – In Rainbows; Bruce Springsteen – The Rising; The White Stripes – Red Blood Cells; TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain; Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere

3. Bela Fleck – Throw Down Your Heart (world)

Barack Obama won the Nobel peace prize because people around the world heard him – and America by extension – speaking in their own languages, whether quoting from the Qur'an, Chinese proverbs, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Bela Fleck is our musical Obama, one of the few musicians with the musicianship and the desire to have a dialogue with nearly anyone on the globe.

Throw Down Your Heart may be the strongest statement of American engagement with the world community since Paul Simon's Graceland. It's a banjo travelogue to the land where the instrument was born, notable because most of the songs here are not a fusion of east and west, but rather Fleck playing fundamentally African music with African musicians. He navigates about a dozen distinct styles in five countries brilliantly and with minimal rehearsal time. Even more than the virtuosity of Fleck's playing, we are witness to the depth of his listening.

As with Obama's Nobel, Fleck represents the possibility of a new relationship with the world, if not yet its full realization. This is still cause for celebration. We have on our hands the kind of global cultural ambassador America hasn’t seen since Dizzy Gillespie, with the talent and grace to take a seat at the global jam session.

Listen to Bela Fleck “Zawose

Honorable Mention: M.I.A. РKala; Amadou & Mariam РDimanche e Bamako, Mariza РFado Curvo; Antibalas РTalkatif; Manu Chao РProxima Estación: Esperanza

4. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (folk)

The surprise of the decade in folk music was who was playing it – namely young musicians, including a lot of barefoot guys with big beards. The generational shift is as profound as the folk revival of the 1960's, when the Greenwich Village kids reconfigured old American music for an urban scene. The stylistic shift in this decade has been equally profound, with the new music sounding as different from Bob Dylan as Dylan sounded from Blind Willie McTell.

Stevens is of this group, but brings a classical sensibility to his art. He's drawn to paint grand orchestral narratives of The American People, shot through with populist, pastoral aspirations, tempered with the post-modern self-consciousness that such grandiosity is drastically out-of-vogue. He is Aaron Copland for a new Millennium.

"Illinois" is a pastiche of culture and kitsch, a wax museum where Carl Sandburg stands beside the Superman statue from downstate Metropolis. Woven through this landscape are intensely personal narratives. "Casimir Pulaski Day" is representative: known to Illinois schoolchildren less as a Polish heritage celebration than a gift of state-sanctioned hookey, it becomes a song about the day Stevens must come to grips with the death of a lover. With grief and memory tightly spun over a simple melody, the effect is breathtaking.

Listen to Sufjan Stevens “Casimir Pulaski Day

Honorable Mention: Various Artists – O Brother Where Art Thou (soundtrack); Iron & Wine – Around the Well; Nickel Creek – This Time; Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

5. Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around (country)

At a time of growing Balkanization in the world of country music, Johnny Cash was the one figure that inspired everybody. His late recordings are a remarkable document of man dealing with the reality of his own death. Under the guiding hand of producer Rick Rubin, Cash began putting on tape as much music as he could manage. He sang folk standards and church hymns, pop chestnuts, murder ballads, and a handful of songs made popular by much younger musicians.

The Man Comes Around shows both the range and depth of Cash’s late work. From the apocalyptic prophesy of the title track to the unexpected tenderness of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to the devastating honesty of "Hurt," he holds nothing back. The deep tremor of his voice – pained, hopeful, determined – turns every song to gold.

These recordings are a hope chest for the ages. In preparing it, Cash became an American Folk Hero. He played to beat the steam drill, and victorious, he laid down his guitar and he died.

Listen to Johnny Cash “Hurt

Honorable Mention: Chuck Ragan & Austin Lucas – Bristle Ridge; Lucinda Williams – World Without Tears; Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose; Steve Earle – Jerusalem

6. Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble – Black Unstoppable (jazz)

While many jazz veterans are still making innovative music, the untold story of this decade is that many of the most important young lions are women. The best-selling new jazz artist of the decade is Norah Jones, while the most critically acclaimed new voice is Esperanza Spaulding. Both have real talent that has yet to find full expression. Nicole Mitchell is the rising star of this decade that actually produced a masterpiece.

Black Unstoppable acknowledges the broad inheritance that is Black music, with aural nods to blues, gospel, Motown, and classic jazz, as well as the avant-garde with which Mitchell is most closely identified. Her vision is a profoundly feminist one, a rarity in a field where even the most talented female musicians rely on conventional love ballads.

She has the confidence of a lion, with muscular themes that become the basis for free improvisation. Alongside the most challenging pieces are passages haunting in their simplicity – the final riff of “Thanking the Universe” seems to linger in your ears for hours after the final note has gone silent. Mitchell's is a bold and beautiful vision, the new shape of jazz to come.

Listen to Nicole Mitchell “Thanking the Universe

Honorable Mention: Herbie Hancock – River: The Joni Letters , Dave Holland – What Goes Around; Dianne Reeves – Good Night and Good Luck (soundtrack); Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar

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

It's a matter of cosmic symbolism that this album was released on election day, 2008. The spirituals that gave courage to the civil rights movement seemed to be finding their fulfillment that day. While Mavis Sings "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" and adds "We're going to get that prize!" election returns showed Americans turning over at least a piece of that prize to a Black President. One can't help but feel goosebumps all through this record.

Staples had developed this project a year earlier with guitarist and producer Ry Cooder for the album "We'll Never Turn Back." Although the Cooder arrangements have stayed, the sound is exponentially better without him, trading the pristine studio for a flesh-and-blood audience. The call-and-response, as well as Mavis' storytelling, is as captivating as the songs themselves.

One election can't fix the world. We're going to need the courage of these songs for years to come.

Listen to Mavis Staples “Eyes on the Prize

Honorable Mention: Mike Farris – Salvation in Lights

8. The Silk Road Ensemble – New Impossibilities (classical)

Twentieth-century classical music broke down nearly every remaining aesthetic barrier attached to the art form. What distinguishes the 21st century so far is the breaking of cultural barriers. From the recognition of composers such as Osvaldo Golijov and Tan Dun to the buzz over Gustavo Dudamel's premiere with the L.A. Symphony, it's clear that the classical idiom is no longer exclusively Western art.

The Silk Road Ensemble exemplifies this trend, breaking cultural barriers through most of the decade. Led by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the ensemble features virtuoso players on a number of Eastern instruments - Sheng, Pi-pa, Koto, Tabla and others. While each of the ensemble's recordings break new ground, the collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra covers the broadest stylistic range, as well as showing the creative possibilities of this music in conventional classical performance.

The Silk Road is itself a powerful symbol of what this music represents, the name referring to the legendary trade route across Asia connecting Europe and the Far East. It speaks of pan-Asian continuity, relations built on exchange rather than colonialism, and a metaphorical crossroads of history, wealth, and culture. The Silk Road journey is the artistic paradigm of the new millennium.

Listen to Silk Road Ensemble “Ambush From Ten Sides

Honorable Mention: John Adams – On the Transmigration of Souls; Osvaldo Golijov – La Pasion Segun San Marcos; John Williams – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (soundtrack)

9. Daddy Yankee – Barrio Fino (Latin)

It's a rare treat to watch an entire new style of music emerge. The mix of dancehall reggae and North American rap known as Reggaeton had its passport stamped in Panama, Puerto Rico, and the United States (among other places) on its way to becoming a hemispheric if not global phenomenon. Reggaeton blew up mid-decade to the point where there were entire radio stations playing nothing but. That fever has subsided, but the influence of the music is still strong in rap and rap-en-espanol, while the most prominent Reggaeton artists are still making records and touring.

Daddy Yankee was the first artist to go Big with a capital B, and this was the album that did it. You'll hear the quintessential stutter-step beat, hyper-masculine boasting, and wickedly addictive hooks on “Gasolina.” Yankee's convincing bad-boy personality and biting delivery help distinguish him from the crowd of performers who drove this sound throughout the decade.

Listen to Daddy Yankee “Gasolina

Honorable Mention: Vicente Fernandez РPrimera Fila, Chicha Libre РSonido Amazonico; Paulina Rubio РPau-Latina; Café Tacuba РCuatro Caminos

10. Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (kids)

The last ten years saw a proliferation of kids albums, often by alternative rockers who now have young kids of their own. The vast majority of this music will be forgotten. To get a sense of what may endure, strip away all the clever cookies-and-naptime lyrics. If the raw music can hold the kids' (and parents') attention, you've got a keeper. By this test, much of the best music for kids you'll find in other categories in the virtual record store.

Springsteen's Seeger Sessions succeeds for the same reason that Seeger's music has succeeded for going-on-70 years: time-tested songs delivered with a palpable sense of joy. In Springsteen's case, a fifteen-piece band gives this recording the feel of an old-time hootenanny. There's also the satisfaction of exposing kids to several American classics, including "O Mary Don't You Weep'' and "We Shall Overcome." Pete Seeger's music made the generational leap, as I'm now playing my childhood records for my own kids; I'm hoping Springsteen makes the leap for my kids’ kids thirty years from now.

Listen to Bruce Springsteen “Jacob’s Ladder

Honorable Mention: Elizabeth Mitchell – You Are My Little Bird; Ellis Paul – The Dragonfly Races; They Might Be Giants – Here Comes Science

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Casual Listening - Best of 2009

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

December 11, 2009

In addition to the year-end special features, check the blog for some additional stocking-stuffers. This week it’s the top ten kids albums by guest reviewer Lee Winkelman, a special guest review of the Bob Dylan Christmas album by Steve McManus, and more greatest misses by Rain Machine and Cedric Watson. Here’s the end-of the year lineup:

Dec 11: The best of 2009

Dec 18: The best of the decade

Dec 25 & Jan 1: No reviews, possibly some special features

Jan 8: Launch of the new casuallistening.com

Best Albums of 2009

(All reviews as they originally appeared)

1. Bela Fleck – Throw Down Your Heart (world)

Some albums require more than three sentences to really understand. Today, I have an essay about Bela Fleck's "Throw Down Your Heart" on the Pop Matters website. You can read the full article here.

And then there's the music. To my ears, it's one of the most significant world music releases since Paul Simon's Graceland. Check out the album here. There is also a documentary of Bela Fleck's travels to Africa that's racking up prizes at film festivals. You can find out more about the film and when it may be coming to your town here.

Listen to Bela Fleck “Wairenziante

2. NOMO – Invisible Cities (jazz)

A musical layer cake - the base is Afrobeat (heavy, horn-laden funk) filled with improvisational jazz and iced with bells, gongs, and other creative percussion that give the music a psychedelic sheen. It's a brilliant combination, either for dancing till you drop or a hypnotic journey to another plane.

Listen to NOMO “Invisible Cities

3. Derek Webb – Stockholm Syndrome (rock)

One of the most interesting recordings of the year, in any genre. Meticulously produced, with elegant pop songcraft over heavy drums and electronic samples – if you dug Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” you’ll be equally entranced with Webb’s sonic collage. The album has also become the center of serious controversy, as Webb’s label refused to release it as written due to inappropriate content (namely, he used the s-word in one song, and railed against the pervasive homophobia in conservative Christian circles). Whatever your religious persuasion (or lack thereof), you’ll appreciate this as art with a progressive, righteous vision.

Listen to the song that kicked off the controversy "What Matters More” on myspace.

Then spend the $8 for the uncensored album here. When someone sticks their neck out like he did, it’s important to show your support.

4. Bobby Sanabria conducting the Manhattan Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra – Kenya Revisited Live (Latin)

It doesn’t get any hotter than this. Sanabria is the new millennium apostle of Latin jazz, and he’s enlisted an orchestra to recreate one of the masterpieces of the genre. He’s even got Candido Camero, who played congas on the original recording with Machito 50 years ago. Five minutes listening and you’ll realize why every jazz musician of the day dropped everything they were doing and taught themselves to play this music.

Listen to Bobby Sanabria “Wild Jungle

And for those who are interested, here’s Machito’s original “Wild Jungle

5. (tie)

Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light (vocal)

Quiet songs sung with a beautifully fragile voice with spare accompaniments of piano guitar, and strings. Aching, tender, and not easily forgotten.

Listen to Antony and the Johnsons “Her Eyes are Underneath the Ground

Ami Saraiya– Archaeologist (vocal)

I don’t invoke names like Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday lightly, but I also don’t come across voices anywhere near that caliber very often. You’ve just got to hear Ami Saraiya to believe it. She’s able to pull emotional strings across the musical spectrum: her cabaret is romantic, her blues gritty, and her rock downright sinister. The orchestration is exquisite, with occasional strings, muted trumpet, guitar, and heavy doses of accordion. You can’t help but be swept off your feet by this album.

Disclaimer: I know Ami and have followed her work for years. I can assure you no favors were traded in preparing this review. This is legitimately a world-class album.

Listen to Ami Sariaiya’s “Vegas Moon” on MySpace, and order the album at www.amisaraiya.com.

6. Iron & Wine – Around the Well (folk)

Iron & Wine is an ambassador from the future of American folk music. With impressionistic use of traditional instruments (banjo, steel guitar) and styles (ballads & blues), Iron & Wine unfolds quiet, penetrating lyrical portraits that approach the greatness of the best bards of the ‘60s. This two-disc set of previously (and inexplicably) unreleased work is split between early acoustic home recordings and more recent forays into psychedelia.

Listen to Iron & Wine “Loud as Hope” and “Carried Home

7. Sufjan Stevens – The BQE: The Motion Picture Soundtrack (classical)

Beethoven wrote an ode to joy. Pablo Neruda wrote an ode to his socks. Sufjan Stevens wrote an ode to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. All three pieces make transcendent art out of something that otherwise would go unnoticed. In this case, it’s a multimedia symphony that draws into itself the best of the last century of classical composition and takes it another step. It’s time to start treating this cat as a real American composer.

Listen to Sufjan Stevens “Movement V: Self-Organizing Emergent Patterns

8. Rihanna – Rated R (R&B)

I’m having trouble figuring out which of these is more shocking to me:

1. The best mainstream pop album of the year is about domestic abuse.

2. The most powerful public statement about domestic abuse this year is a mainstream pop album.

While I’m getting over the shock, let me say that the album sounds great. Slower tempos and dancehall inflections give a sense of gravity that’s uncommon for an artist aiming for the top 40. Rihanna portrays herself on this set as hardened. She evokes images of gang fights and Russian roulette not because she has a deathwish, but because she doesn’t. She’s been forced to face her mortality and somehow has to rebuild a life afterwards. Heavy stuff, powerful art.

Listen to Rihanna “Stupid in Love

9. K’Naan – Troubador (rap)

Anyone looking for proof of the global scope of rap music should consider K’Naan exhibit A. Raised in Somalia and relocated to Canada, K’Naan testifies to the redeeming power of hip hop on streets far more dangerous than urban America. With a hopeful vibe and a powerfully spoken message, K’Naan digs this music deeper than all but the most skilled American rappers.

Listen to K’Naan “Dreamer

10. The Dixie Bee-Liners – Susanville (Bluegrass)

A one-hour road trip for the mind, “Susanville” captures the restlessness and discovery of barreling across middle America. The string band sound evokes just enough nostalgia to capture the feel of truck stops and diners without getting too comfortable – after all, it’s the road that calls. These songs carry a sense of velocity, always moving us along to somewhere new.

Listen to The Dixie Bee-Liners “Restless

Check out the blog at http://casuallistening.blogspot.com . Follow me on Lala here

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Casual Listening Guest Review - Best Kids Music 2009

Casual Listening

Extra!

December 11, 2009

Lee Winkelman is a Casual Listener who follows kids music releases way more closely than I do. Here are his picks in this category for the year:

Best Kids Music of 2009

The golden age of kids music continues with another strong year. There is nothing on this list that I wouldn’t be willing to listen to without my kid around

Here are my (and my five year old son Henry’s) 12 favorite kids albums of 2009, listed in order:

1. Duplex - Worser (Mint Records). This record is an indie music delight. It is by a collective of Vancouver musicians led by Veda Hille and Justin Kellam. Musical styles include heavy metal (about the nobel gases), synthpop, powerpop, and folk rock (about why two dads are splitting up), with everything just enough off kilter to be interesting. You have to order this record online from their record company, but it is worth it.

2. They Might Be Giants - Here Comes Science (Walt Disney Records). This great kids record isn’t much of a departure from TMBG’s adult records. I remember dancing to one of the songs on the record – Why Does the Sun Shine? – at TMBG concerts in the 1990s long before they released a kids record. Be sure and get the version with the DVD because the videos that accompany each song are a lot of fun.

3. Secret Agent 23 Skidoo - Easy (Happiness Records). Kid-hop music with a positive message. Luck is the best hip-hop song of the year to prominently feature a banjo.

4. Peter Himmelman - My Trampoline (Minivan Record). Straight ahead, upbeat rock and roll that will appeal to fans of Bruce Springsteen or John Fogherty. Fun to dance to. I love the organ on “Florie Loves Flowers” and the ballad that asks the plaintive question: “Are There Any Kids Named Steve Anymore?”

5. The Macaroons - Let's Go Coconuts! (JDub Records). You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy this kids record, but it helps. The lyrics may be a bit puzzling to the goyim (what's a mezuzah? A talis?), but the fun, rocking tunes will appeal to everyone. For those looking for a Jewish religioius experience, please note that the lyrics are silly with very little spiritual content.

6. Ziggy Marley - Family Time (TUFF GONG WORLDWIDE). An easy-going, likeable record. Ziggy sings with members of his family and special guests stars. It is not a hard core reggae record (unless you consider his father’s “Redemption Song” to be hard core reggae). Guests include Willie Nelson, Toots Hibbert, Paul Simon, Elizabeth Mitchell and Laurie Berkner. Produced by Don Was.

7. Renee & Jeremy - C'mon (One Melody Records). They’ve left the gentle lullabies of their first record behind, rocking out on pretty melodies with real drums. It still has a sweet, lo-fi quality to it, like it was recorded in their living room.

8. Dan Zanes - 76 Trombones (Festival Five Records). The dean of contemporary kids music takes on Broadway standards. His loose and ragged style roughs up the songs in an appealing way. A fun album.

9. Los Lobos - Los Lobos Goes Disney (Walt Disney Records). The souped up rhumba of Los Lobos’ Heigh Ho is completely contagious. Los Lobos takes (mostly) familiar Disney songs and puts their own spin on them, making them sound fresh again. I am especially fond of the surf-guitar instrumental Wish Upon A Star/Small World medley.

10. Randy Kaplan - Loquat Rooftop (Yellow Thing Records). An urban folk troubadour sings a mix of originals and well chosen covers (Leadbelly, the Coasters, Hank Williams). He’s a charming story teller with a good sense of humor.

11. Robbert Bobbert - Bubble Machine (Little Monster Records). Robbert Bobbert is the leader of the power-pop band Apples in Stereo. On this kids record, he brings the same infectious energy and catchy melodies to his kids music.

12. Gustafer Yellowgold - Mellow Fever (Apple-Eye Productions/Redeye). Gustafer Yellowgold is the creation and alter-ego of singer-songwriter and graphic artist Morgan Taylor. Taylor creates gorgeous music and charming drawings on this CD/DVD set, telling the story of Gustafer, an immigrant from the Sun, and his friends. The music is would fit in well with Cat Stevens or the gentler side of the Beatles.

12. The Sippy Cups - The Time Machine (Snacker Disc). The San Francisco sound is updated and made appropriate for kids (alas, no drug references). Even when the songs have a message (like the global warming song “Don’t Remove the Groove”), they are never preachy, always silly. Though this album is all originals, when they play live, they are likely to do kid-friendly covers of the Monkeys, the Ramones, and who knows who else.

Most (but not all) of the records above can be found at www.pokeypup.com or cdbaby.com. The rest can be found by googling the record company.

Casual Listening Guest Review - Bob Dylan Christmas

Casual Listening

Extra!

December 11, 2009

I haven’t seen a Dylan music polarize the musical community as much as I’ve seen with Christmas in the Heart. I’m having trouble giving an objective review, so I’ve turned to one of Casual Listening’s greatest Dylanophiles for this review. Here’s Steve McManus

Bob Dylan – Christmas in the Heart (holiday)

I suppose a review of "Christmas in the Heart" by Bob Dylan could start with a discussion of how the album falls in line with his Christian Gospel work of the late 1970s. Some folks may look at it as another collection of Dylan folk songs. Perhaps some reviewers may analyze the irony of Dylan, who has been called a prophet by many, singing about the birth of the man many consider to the Messiah. Yes, there is plenty of material here for the Dylan scholars, historians, critics, zealots, lecturers, and biographers. But I'm going to look past all that and simply say that this a sincere and enjoyable record to add to your holiday collection, and the proceeds go to Feeding America. And if "Christmas in the Heart" doesn't make it into your stocking, you can still donate to Feeding America and find out more information here: http://feedingamerica.org/."

Casual Listening - More Greatest Misses

Casual Listening

Extra!

December 11, 2009

Two more greatest misses from this year:

! Rain Machine – Rain Machine (rock)

Rain Machine is the project of art-rock phenom Kip Malone, whose other band (TV on the Radio) is showing up on a lot of best-of-the-decade lists. This album is brilliant as well, with a frayed-around-the-edges voice that ricochets between shouts and falsetto. All of his music comes from a deep emotional place, and it’s the centerpiece of a sound that ranges from heavy rockers to stripped down acoustic guitar. A sophisticated listen.

Listen to Rain Machine “Give Blood

* Cedric Watson – L’esprit Creole (folk)

This is what Zydeco is all about. Great bluesy accordion dance music with evident Creole roots, mostly sung in French. Watson manages both authenticity and adventurousness, showing off the breadth of this still-vital musical form.

Listen to Cedric Watson “Le Sud de la Louisiane

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Casual Listening - Greatest Misses 2009

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

December 4, 2009

The parade of end-of-the-year features continues:

Dec 4: Greatest Misses: stuff I’ve overlooked

Dec 11: The best of 2009

Dec 18: The best of the decade

Dec 25 & Jan 1: No reviews, possibly some special features

Jan 8: Launch of the new casuallistening.com

Greatest Misses: Overlooked in 2009

! Ami Saraiya– Archaeologist (vocal)

I don’t invoke names like Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday lightly, but I also don’t come across voices anywhere near that caliber very often. You’ve just got to hear Ami Saraiya to believe it. She’s able to pull emotional strings across the musical spectrum: her cabaret is romantic, her blues gritty, and her rock downright sinister. The orchestration is exquisite, with occasional strings, muted trumpet, guitar, and heavy doses of accordion. You can’t help but be swept off your feet by this album.

Disclaimer: I know Ami and have followed her work for years. I can assure you no favors were traded in preparing this review. This is legitimately a world-class album.

Listen to Ami Sariaiya’s “Vegas Moon” on MySpace, and order the album at www.amisaraiya.com.

! Anne Akiko Meyers – Smile (classical)

Eclectic pieces for virtuoso violin connected by a deep sense of joy. With achingly pure tone, Meyers does equal justice to Schubert, Astor Piazzola, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The title piece is originally by silent film star Charlie Chaplin, and it’s a chaplinesque broad smile that’s the product of every piece on this recording.

Listen to Anne Akiko Meyers “Smile

! Rihanna – Rated R (R&B)

I’m having trouble figuring out which of these is more shocking to me:

1. The best mainstream pop album of the year is about domestic abuse.

2. The most powerful public statement about domestic abuse this year is a mainstream pop album.

While I’m getting over the shock, let me say that the album sounds great. Slower tempos and dancehall inflections give a sense of gravity that’s uncommon for an artist aiming for the top 40. Rihanna portrays herself on this set as hardened. She evokes images of gang fights and Russian roulette not because she has a deathwish, but because she doesn’t. She’s been forced to face her mortality and somehow has to rebuild a life afterwards. Heavy stuff, powerful art.

Listen to Rihanna “Stupid in Love

! Hiram and Huddie – various artists (country, blues)

A group of folk and blues players wrench two American music legends off their pedestals and make them dance again. Hiram is the given name of Hank Williams, and Huddie somehow got the nickname Leadbelly. The new interpretations of their honky-tonk and jailhouse classics are amazingly vital. The performers here – William Elliot Whitmore, Scott H. Biram, and Reverend Payton’s Big Damn Band are the tip of the iceberg – have the collective potential to turn the roots rock world upside down.

Listen to Hiram and Huddie “Gallis Pole

* Filisko & Noden – I. C. Special (blues)

Two top-shelf instrumentalists wail on the forgotten blues of the 1920s and 1930s. Filisko is a legend in harmonica circles, and Noden deserves to be one for his slide guitar work. They find plenty of life left in songs and styles from the dawn of recorded music.

Disclaimer: I know these guys, too. What can I say? Genius loves company.

Listen to “Gridlock Blues” and buy the album here.

Ori Dakari – Entrances (jazz)

Dakari’s compositions blend Israeli music traditions with the jazz tradition. A talented sax-focused quintet gives these pieces life, with Dakari himself on guitar.

Listen to Ori Dakari “Beresheet

Dunkelbunt – Raindrops and Elephants (world)

Master DJ’s alongside drums and instruments from across sound like a musical dispatch from the electronic Amazon. Dunkelbunt surprises at every turn, rolling a global amalgam over a big beat.

Listen to Dunkelbunt “Balkan Qoulou

Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind (rock)

You’ll see the group’s earlier release “Merriweather Post Pavilion” on many critics’ best-of lists this year. This 5-song EP is a good introduction to their freak-out pop style.

Listen to Animal Collective “What Would I Want? Sky

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Casual Listening - Christmas Album Roundup

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

November 27, 2009

Happy post-Thanksgiving, all. We’re into the end of the year, and new releases slow to a crawl, so I’ve got a series of special features for you over the next few weeks:

Nov 27: Christmas Album Roundup

Dec 4: Greatest Misses: stuff I’ve overlooked

Dec 11: The best of 2009

Dec 18: The best of the decade

Dec 25 & Jan 1: No reviews, possibly some special features

Jan 8: Launch of the new casuallistening.com

Christmas Album Roundup

* Kermit Ruffins – Have a Crazy Cool Christmas (jazz)

It doesn’t snow in New Orleans in December, but that doesn’t keep Ruffins from spreading some holiday cheer. Spot-on Dixieland and funk jazz renditions of the classics along with a few surprises.

Listen to Kermit Ruffins “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Andrea Bocelli – My Christmas (vocal)

As a recording of a beautiful voice with over-the-top orchestration, Bocelli’s album belongs in the same category as Bing Crosby’s Christmas recordings. Some of the carols have a more classical bent, others more pop, but all of the have the kind of sentimental feel that brings families together around the hearth this time of year.

Listen to Andrea Bocelli “White Christmas

Bifrost Arts – Salvation is Created (rock)

This collective of indie rock artists came together as a group to explore Christian themes in traditional music – which made a Christmas album a natural. The settings draw on a chamber orchestra, with various tracks having violins, xylophone, and electric guitar. These are adventurous and often dark takes on mostly familiar standards.

Listen to Bifrost Arts “Let All Mortal Flesh

Straight No Chaser – Christmas Cheers (A Capella)

The novelty song is a venerable Christmas tradition, and Straight No Chaser carry it on honorably. Both more listenable and more clever than “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” this album is a big dose of jolly.

Listen to Straight No Chaser “The 12 Days of Christmas

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

Check out the blog at http://casuallistening.blogspot.com . Follow me on Lala here

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Casual Listening - Dave Rawlings Machine, Them Crooked Vultures, CAGE MATCH: Lady Gaga vs. Kid Sister

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

November 20, 2009

* Dave Rawlings Machine – A Friend of a Friend (folk)

Best known as Gillian Welch’s guitar-playing sidekick, Rawlings shows he can kick out the back porch jams. Tight harmonies, lots of mandolin, and an enthusiasm reminiscent of The Band brings on a big hippie grin.

Listen to Dave Rawlings Machine “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)

* Them Crooked Vultures – Them Crooked Vultures (rock)

A Frankenstein of a rock project. With superstars from bands like Nirvana and Led Zeppelin grafted together, the full assembly is menacing, but it’s alive. Sludgy guitar riffs and a trashcan drum sound make for a heavy but inventive set of tunes.

Listen to Them Crooked Vultures “Elephants

Alan Lomax – Alan Lomax in Haiti (folk)

An enormous time capsule from one of the most important documenters of the world’s traditional music. Ten discs of field recordings from the island made in 1936 and 1937 are being made available for the first time. There are whole albums of voodoo music and carnival music, as well as three songs sung by folklorist and writer Zora Neale Hurston. It’s worth just picking through a few tracks at random to give yourself the sound of another place and time.

Listen to Alan Lomax in HaitiWoy-O Woy-O Plus Ochan

Grupo Pesado – Desde La Cantina (Latin)

While most only encounter the radio version of Nortena music, to catch its true spirit you need to hear it live with friends, accompanied by a few beers. Grupo Pesado’s new album comes as close as I’ve heard to capturing that setting. Perfectly harmonized ballads and brawny accordion solos show off a band playing their hearts out.

Listen to Grupo Pesado “Cielo Nublado

Larry Sparks – I Just Want to Thank You Lord (country)

Gospel numbers have always been part of bluegrass, and Bill Monroe always had several hymns among the ballads and breakdowns. This album is all bluegrass gospel, in the best old traditional style. High and lonesome with plenty of serious picking, it’s also a window on an era when church music was one of the universals of rural life.

Listen to Larry Sparks “Little White Frame Church

CAGE MATCH: Lady Gaga: The Fame Monster -vs- Kid Sister: Ultraviolet

The Contest: Dance Dance Revolution!

On the left dancepad, the new darling of dance-pop, so cool you need a refrigerator just to dig her, Lady Gaga! (GAGAGAGA!!!) And on the right dancepad, the princess of the hip-hop underworld, patron saint of nail technicians everywhere, Kid Sister! (HOOYAHH!!!!)

Lady Gaga drops a mid-tempo disco noir. Step-step, twirl (you’re doin’ great!) Stomp to the beat! Stomp to the beat! (you’re on fire!) Now she’s signing like Madonna! Hophophop-step (let’s do it again!) That score’s going to be tough to beat.

Kid Sister punches up the electro beats (let’s dance!) Step-step-jump! (all riiiight!) Bop to the left, Bop to the right, feel the funky flow (your moves are refreshing!) and the screen shuts off! Her stare is too seductive for the computer to handle!!! Kid Sister wins!!! (HOOYAHH!!!!)

Listen to Lady Gaga “Bad Romance

Listen to Kid Sister “Right Hand Hi

Giuliano & I Baroni – Faccia d’Angelo (rock)

Every once in a while, I run across an album so unbelievably bad, I can only marvel at the evil geniusness of the artist who concocted such a monster. This is hands down the worst album I’ve heard all year, possibly the most horrendous album I’ve heard since I started reviewing music. From the embarrassing cover photo to the pop trash sung in Italian, this is a true tour de farce. And if you think the album’s a nightmare, the YouTube video will have you screaming.

Listen to Giuliano & I Baroni “Piccola Stella

Or if you dare, go to the website and watch the YouTube video of “Arrivano I Cow Boy

* highly recommended

! highest recommendation

Check out the blog at http://casuallistening.blogspot.com . Follow me on Lala here

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