You know, I wish this light was all light, that it would follow only us.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Music, 2009.

I don't work in a record store anymore--for the first full year since I was sixteen. And my tastes are settling dutifully back to what nature and good influence dictate.

I still read the Pitchfork site and have a few friends writing so I'm not completely disconnected, but I get a lot more solipsistic mornings throwing a toy squirrel for Ella to fetch and whiling out on drugs and tea to Mahler's 9th Symphony than I would have back when I was doing Forced Exposure orders and seeing what all the big shit was on the Kranky roster.

Sufficed to say I didn't need to have my ear to the proverbial track in 2009 to know it was a dramatic time in 2009--the year made a crash in me, while the overall tenor of music criticism, borne out in those irresistible year-end lists and surveys of the decade, cast the impression of something largely unremarkable.

All the while it seems impossible we've hit that double mark once again of year and decade. I find it telling that the last time I addressed my thoughts on the passing of the decade--at that time the millennium as well, I was 24, roving through my parents neighborhood at midnight to, yes, I do remember it, a Deutsche Grammophon label recording of Boulez conducting the 9th Symphony by Gustav Mahler. It must surely be that half-sleeping confluence of the natural world and its inevitable claim on our waning fires.

This time around I've chosen to run through my notable music selections in alphabetical order for several reasons. First, it has always proven difficult--even arbitrary at times, ranking records. I won't lie, I get a gambler's high trying to call the what-point-what an album gets on Pitchfork before clicking the icon, or better still giggling over the whorish distribution of stars at Rolling Stone--which yes, is still astonishingly in print. So too I no longer limit myself to the year's releases--maybe I didn't last year either. That alone makes the notion of a ranking order highly dubious; let's just talk about what we like here and not quibble over decimal points, okay? And finally, there is for a number of reasons an emotional element to this year's listening that cannot be extricated from the survey. Then again wasn't there always?

Big Ceasar-I Wonder I found this tune on a Lee and Shirley party album, likely from the late 50's. Big Ceasar has but this one tune on it. But oh what a tune it is, a trudgingly slow-paced piano ballad in the style of Johnny Ace. The song is an unanswered love letter to a betrothed girl, and has all the impact of a great Ben E. King wall-of-sounder, a Carole King heartclot. How this lost weeper got lost is itself cause to break out the Kleenex...

You all give me a little while to pack some RAM and new software on this old Mac Steve Anderson so generously donated to the Stink Cheat Torture foundation and I'll have an mp3 posted.

Camera Obscura-Honey in the Sun All the elements of a choice Tracyanne Campbell torch burner are here: Memphis horns, Nashville country girl soul, exhilarated intimations of abuse and neglect, transcendent pinings at the Southern Cross. This Scottish gal has been sitting in dusty libraries, reading up on the American soap opera so long she knows it better than we do: The Marquis de Lafayette, Winston Churchill, Tracyanne Campbell...let's make it official, give her honorary citizenship already!

Flaming Lips-Convinced of the Hex There is a riveting scene from last year's Let the Right One In, in which young Oskar greets his new neighbor, Eli, a vampire girl upon whom he has a crush, at his door. She can't enter unless she is invited. Coyly Oskar refuses the formality. She could explain why it is essential to be invited but instead chooses to simply show him. Without the necessary invitation she crosses the threshold and begins, immediately, to bleed profusely from her pores, eyes, nose, etc.. In the irreversibility of self-destruction, Eli shows Oskar, lies the conviction of the soul in love.

In 2006 without invitation The Flaming Lips crossed the threshold and bled out the tragic At War With the Mystics. It was a provocative, silly, grating and entirely over-indulgent record (for a band who released one record on four discs to be played simultaneously that's saying something). Morever it just sucked crack dick. Their psychedelic ship had breached the cosmic ceiling in two previous records--The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. They'd made their freakout noises into household goods. Their tunes showed up in car ads, dentists hummed them. And critics bowed down; rightfully so. There was nowhere to go but, well, nowhere. At War grants solid perspective to Embryonic. However unpalatable the former may be, and in hindsight it still very much is, it cleared a creative path in the celebrified space the Flaming Lips occupy.

I despise the commercial notion of a "return to form"--it is perhaps the most anti-artistic concept in circulation--a desperate marketing plea to give a product another chance. Hearing Embryonic one gets the sense that the Lips just wanted to freak themselves out again--let Hyundais sell themselves. They were back to doing for themselves in a highly pleasing fashion. It is, to be sure, a droning lumbering double-discer that doesn't give way instantly--its simplicity lies in its hypnotic effect. The production (another wisely adherent Dave Fridmann job) is misleadingly ramshackle. Gone is the triumphalism and polish of "Do You Realize". This is an almost juvenile turn. Unexpected, captivating and demanding, the payoff from a turbulent journey.

Getting old is its own psychedelia, not that we needed proof. Alas...

Golden Silvers-True Romance Soccer John turned me on to these guys. I thought I was an anglophile til I met him. Now I'm for Chelsea F.C. and the tune Suggs sang for them. Boxties over at Piper's and a yellow card in my back pocket. Golden Silvers would've appealed to me with or without John, but I mention him and in fact inextricably link this record to him for very good reason: that affinity.

Growing up I was a weekly nuisance at B. Dalton in the Carlisle Plaza Mall, making a reading room of the floor just before the British music rag section. I poached about $20 worth of reading in a take: Q, Select, NME, Mixmag... Looking back I think it meant a great deal to be able to absorb that culture from a distance. In truth I suspect Blur vs Oasis would've grown thin on me had I had to hear about it every day; certainly Menswe@r wouldn't have had their cosmopolitan appeal were they from Brooklyn. God help me I might not have liked the Boo Radleys.

Whatever the particulars that distance was instrumental in my love. And years on I get a thrill from knowing it stirs. Golden Silvers have the impish U.K. magnetism of The Specials, the poshness of The Style Council. Their tunes are confident and wildly catchy--as my pal RP observed curiously, How are these not top ten hits!?

The title track is luxuriant Duran Duran and Madness cool--dance music that refuses to not be danced to. And the opening, "Another Universe" is a rhapsodic soul rumination that once made Oasis b-sides the stuff of life lessons. The influence of Super Furry Animals--special attention to that psych organ sound, and Nile Rodgers abounds. After many years of gaudy electroclash and piss dance rock Golden Silvers have stepped out, and restored pastiche to its beloved crest.

Richard Hawley-Truelove's Gutter I'd come to pity Richard Hawley, the Sheffieldian wiz who seemed destined to remain to layfolk a footnote of the Pulp history book--he toured as their guitarist. Or even more dubiously he would be remembered as a player in the catastrophic Britpop band, Longpigs. Of course all of this went void when he released his 2005 masterpiece, Cole's Corner, a sentimental and engaging ode to his hometown, first loves and lost loves. Since then it has been in that shadow in which Richard Hawley has unenviably labored.

The follow-up, Lady's Bridge, was in places ebullient--"Serious" is the kind of neo-rockabilly gold over which Dwight Yoakam and Chris Isaak would commit unspeakable acts to call their own. And the--again Sheffield-regarding, "Roll River Roll" showed Hawley's depth lay, in tandem with his infectious pop hooks, profound and convincing. But a side b that feels largely canned and a for-the-charts sounding lead-off single, "Tonight the Streets Are Ours" combine to make it something of a shadowing exercise, Cole's Pt. II.

Truelove's Gutter is most instantly and unmistakably proven on its tone. This is a record that, not unlike Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours, appears to have emerged from a transformative romantic loss. Whatever the details of Richard Hawley's life he has with incisive emotional clarity laid some heavy shit on the table this time around. His opening lines of "As the Dawn Breaks" sound to a chorus of birds, a thin guitar and a lonesome sustaining tone, he finds in that first light the place where "your heart aches", consoling, "it's true we never had much time." There's so much personal weight.

"Soldier On" is a David Lean-size separation lament. Set to sobbing lap steel and sparse timpani, it finds Richard in his true cinematic form, reducing the sum and substance of the cosmos to the level of his heartbreak.

The first single, "Open Up Your Door", addresses that same audience-courting impulse Hawley entertained in "Tonight the Streets Are Ours" with greater conviction and handily more characteristic sincerity. It is a plaintive tune, owing handsomely to Sun Records idols and Nashville in the 60's--in short, Hawley's day dreams.

Jack Rose-Kensington Blues Before his untimely passing on December 5th Jack was regarded by many of us close to him as an enigma. He had all the telltale characteristics of a great artist, but having never met one--how many in one's generation after all does one meet?--we just took him for Jack and enjoyed the ride. His work, in reflection, shows how fortunate we were to hear his living presence, and how we continue to be lucky to have his music with us. 2005's Kensington Blues was the second record I heard of Jack's--the hook was set with the previous year's Raag Manifestos. This record however outshone the former, it set Jack up as more than a mere musician, more than a composer, arranger, what have you. In Kensington Blues there flourished that most improbable practice in art: true invention. Jack Rose didn't invent the guitar, but to listen to Kensington Blues you'd swallow the idea whole he did. Don't get me wrong, those of us who adored him knew from what we spoke. His listeners mostly came to him by way of John Fahey and Derek Bailey. We knew Blind Willie McTell and Howlin' Wolf. And for that matter we knew Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan. The DNA of Jack Rose was in evidence, but none of us could have anticipated the music Jack made.

Lady Gaga- Pokerface The general salivation that occurs when an artist of such flamboyant and polarizing effect as Lady Gaga in the mouths of critics aching for things to write about is itself cause for me to refrain from writing a single word about her; but I'll resist. I really love her. Her tacky outfits and headpieces, her canned beats, excessively rich dancing queen growl--there's a bit of Taylor Dayne in that gal, her concepty branding, her dumbass name, her vagina, her dick, her hotass vestigial tail, the infatuated lies they tell about her, it's all good.

Especially in recent years, as Sally Shapiro, Annie and Robyn edge around the heads of hipsters looking to tack another post- onto their post-ironic sensibilities Gaga is such a slippery eel. Her music spans the gap between hipster and household, but unlike her elder generation of singers--Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and the like, she tempers the unabashedly bird-brained dancefloor magnetism with a well-scripted (and played) sexual politic--it's not so preposterous either to say there's something stirring in the garish pop-art persona thing she's toying with either. The very persistence of questions over her sloppy identity pastiche is proof enough that she's at least holding our curiosity--infused in dizzy lust.

Mayer Hawthorne-A Strange Arrangement Detroit-born soul singer looks like the dorky guy from The Zombies. His awkward curiosity ends there.

Released on Peanut Butter Wolf's occasionally brilliant Stone's Throw imprint, it finds Hawthorne breathing new (some might argue first) life into the neo-soul sub-genre. Luxuriant nods to The Chi-Lites, Barry White and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes underscore the singer's inborn affinity for melting hearts with stories about how his heart got melted. "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" is edged out in a production sound clearly of the era of Danger Mouse, but the pining for that Detroit he grew up with is the real gilded edge here. Or go for the "You Can't Hurry Love" by way of "A Town Called Malice" love stirrer, "Your Easy Lovin' Ain't Pleasin." A fantastic soul record that handily lives up to the deep, doting mentorship in its genes. I genuinely did not think they made em like this anymore.

Morrissey-Years of Refusal Morrissey was never gonna buy a Corvette and leave his first wife.

No, our Stephen Patrick Morrissey is a man cut from another bolt, and his predilections and imperfections bear this out. Sexuality aside--which at this point is so secondary to his unclassifiable persona that it seems trite to even mention, Morrissey has made his stardom by being another creature, a genuine modernist, and by being so with nearly wrathful sincerity.

Years of Refusal finds Morrissey plugging up an overrated and under-impressive streak of vanity records; he still garners good reviews from seekers who, as if eating crab legs, crack and sift through a lot of bullshit for a little good. It would be egregious were he not Morrissey, were his word not so indelibly linked to a Voice.

"Mama Lay Softly on the River Bed" might or might not have tragic personal implications. It might, as well, or might not wire back to The Smiths weeper, "I Know It's Over", with its generational coda, "Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head". It's about a quarter of a century on and the librarian who reared him now appears to be gone. His hair is thinner, his band wouldn't reunite for ten million bucks. But that sound and that soulful presence has reemerged.

Moreover he's finally coming to terms with it and making good music of it again. Rollicking with viagrafied fury on "All You Need is Me" he comes with perhaps his best Greta Garbo in years, perhaps the best of his solo career. "I was a small fat child in a welfare house/There was only one thing I ever dreamed about/Fate has just handed it to me/Whoopee."

So glad we have you back.

Van Morrison-Veedon Fleece Is it wrong for the same album to make a guy's list two years running? Nothing I could say could eclipse Lester Bangs' devotional on Astral Weeks, but have at this line, at Ivan finding his inner peace in the desperado lamentation, "Who Was That Masked Man." It was a grand old year.

When they take him down
He will be both safe and sound
And the hand does fit the glove
And no matter what they tell you
There is good and evil in Everyone.

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