As August comes to an end, and I suppose symbolically summer as well, I thought it was only appropriate to close it out with a music posting. Concert wise, it’s been a slower summer than I’d expected — only one show at the Greek Theatre so far — but like most things in life it’s not the quantity that matters but the quality, and the one show I saw certainly bore this out; The National, Modest Mouse and REM — 3 bands I dig for the price of one (sometimes quantity does come into play).
Radio Free Berkeley
The first time I saw REM was back in 1982 and the last time I saw them was at the Greek Theatre in 1986, a show that was eventually rained out and rescheduled for the Oakland Arena a month later. Of course, the intimacy that would’ve been felt at the Greek wasn’t at the Oakland Arena, and despite the band’s ability to fill the space sonically, it wasn’t a very memorable show.
That was not the case with this most recent show, which in many ways felt like a celebration and a homecoming; both in the bands REM chose to support them and the love shared between the audience and this seminal group. They were clearly happy to be back in Berkeley and that enthusiasm seemed to fuel their performance, as they blazed through a two hour plus set of classics and mostly everything off the new album, Accelerate. The only time things lagged was strangely during the hit “Losing My Religion”, which despite the inspired sing-along, felt a bit sluggish and by the numbers. They ended the night with a rousing version of “Man on the Moon”, which was one of those transcendent rock show moments you put on a top ten list. They may be in their early or near 50s, but it was great to see they could still turn it out.
Now some of you might’ve been expecting something else this week, and I assure you that’s on its way, but for now I wanted to give you volume 2 of my 365 albums project and share a few juicy nuggets that you may want to add to your iPod and end of summer/start of fall life soundtrack.
London Calling, The Clash. A masterpiece. If you consider yourself a self-respecting music fan — open-minded to all genres — then this is one of two albums mentioned here you should already have in your music collection. Rolling Stone deemed it the best record of the 80s and that’s not hyperbole. The production, song writing and passion behind London Calling, find The Clash on the verge of becoming one of the most important rock bands ever. I got this on vinyl as a Christmas gift in 1979 and have since purchased it twice more (the most recent being the 25th anniversary Legacy Edition).
Silvertone, Chris Isaak. When I first came to the Bay Area back in 1985, Chris Isaak and Silvertone were the first local band I fell in love with. The live shows at that time seemed like a monthly necessity — with Isaac mixing inspired music, comic stories and a tiki party like atmosphere into a can’t miss event. And while the music on Silvertone doesn’t exactly capture the experience of those shows, the odd blend of Sun Studio style rock ‘n roll and reverb drenched surf guitars makes it an eerie, good listen. The influences are clear — The Ventures, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash — but the record never feels derivative or retro. In my opinion Isaak’s smooth, soaring voice has rarely sounded better. An excellent debut.
Roots, Curtis Mayfield. Choosing my favorite Curtis Mayfield album would be a lot like choosing a favorite child — you love them all for different reasons. Roots was the album I selected for this section of my project and if you’re looking to start with one in particular, this certainly wouldn’t be a poor choice. His signature wah guitar sound, that beautiful voice, the poignant lyrics — it’s all here.
Midnight Organ, Frightened Rabbit. Frightened Rabbit aren’t the first band to write songs about loneliness, sex, or post-relationship misery — they aren’t even the first Scottish band to do it — but their jangly, chiming guitars and mournful melodies effortlessly dig their way into your heart and you’re happy to commiserate. Fresh on the heels (literally) of their wonderful 2007 debut Sing the Greys, Midnight Organ is less raw and punk driven, but no less powerful. In fact, the cleaner sound fits the band nicely and makes me wonder if there’s been a couple extra sunny days in Glasgow this past year. Definitely one of my top 10 albums of 2008. Brilliant.
What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye. The second masterpiece on this list. Put together during the Vietnam War and after the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. and Bobby Kennedy, this is the quintessential example of an artist being moved by suffering, chaos and revolution and creating something transcendent and illuminating. This album never ceases to blow my mind with the journey it takes the listener on and if you truly give yourself over to it, it’ll both inspire you and bring you to tears.
The Odd Couple, Gnarls Barkley. Darker sounding than the first album and perhaps less accessible, The Odd Couple nevertheless musically surpasses what Green and Danger Mouse did on St. Elsewhere. The album feels more cohesive and the songs explore a richer territory. Lyrically, Green hasn’t been better and Danger Mouse keeps it as funky and surprising as always. One of my top 10 albums of 2008.
La Pistola y El Corazon, Los Lobos. This 1988 valentine to the music that moved and influenced them — huapango, ranchera, etc. — is bar none my favorite Los Lobos album. In Spanish and largely acoustic — guitars, guitarrón, violin, and accordion — this collection of original and traditional songs, has an intimate and live feel that’ll both squeeze your heart and move your feet. One of my favorite albums of all time.
Saturdays=Youth, M83. Somewhere between nostalgic, tongue-in-cheek and absolutely sincere, Saturdays = Youth might be the musical equivalent of a John Hughes movie. That said, this 80s influenced electro-rock album is the real deal. Individually the songs are melodic shoegazing anthems, but where they really shine is when they’re taken together as a whole. After my first listen I didn’t quite see this, but after the second and then third I was blown away by how much it worked. Alternating between quiet and bombast, the album is a surprising success.
Atlantis: Hymns for Disco, K-OS. This is hybridized conscious hip-hop that will get you thinking as well as shakin’ your ass. I love it. So far I haven’t been disappointed by anything this Toronto rapper has done. Atlantis illustrates K-Os’ proficiency at twisting and blurring genres, while continuing his contribution to the expansion of hip-hop’s boundaries. Put on “Sunday Morning” or “Valhalla” and see where your day goes. Few albums work on as many different levels as this one.
Accelerate, REM. The return of REM to its old form? Perhaps. But unlike the general consensus, I haven’t been disappointed with the band’s output since drummer Bill Berry’s departure. In fact, I appreciated the band’s attemps to go in a different, more experimental direction. C’mon, they lost a key member of their group — where else would they go? Where Accelerate returns to form in most people’s eyes is in its energy — it rocks in a way the previous three albums haven’t. Because of this, a lot of folks have compared it to Monster, but I think that’s confusing energy with enthusiasm; I see more in common with Lifes Rich Pageant than Monster. For me, Accelerate sounds like a band that loves playing together and the songwriting and performances reflect that. It’s a brisk, solid album whose songs work especially well live. One listen to “Houston” with its growling organ and melodic chorus and you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
Seun Kuti & Fela’s Egypt 80, Seun Kuti & Fela’s Egypt 80. Following in the footsteps of his late father before him (and older brother), Seun Kuti has delivered a startling debut in the best sense of the Kuti afro-funk tradition — funky brass, layers of picking guitars, call and response choruses. And even though using his father’s most recent band, he’s still managed to deliver something fresh, hard-hitting and politically potent. This is a youthful, groove filled Africa-centric wake-up call. Another of 2008’s best.
Trip Tease, Tipsy. OK, so throw Esquivel, Raymond Scott, Tricky, a crate diver like DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist or Madlib, some martinis and a few tikis into a pot or studio, mix it all together and you might get something that resembles Tipsy. Maybe. Weird, wonderful and above all danceable. I do love the 21st century. Pastiche at its finest.
Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend. Due to the crazy hype for this album, I didn’t feel any real pressure to rush out and get it fearing it couldn’t possibly live up to the stratospheric fawning. What I’d read about the group’s sound certainly piqued my interest, but since my monthly music budget was already in the red, Vampire Weekend was relegated to wait status. But then when the backlash began with the same fervency as the hype, my curiosity won out and the emergency reserve was dipped into. First, let me just say it’s a fine album — nothing earth shattering — but it’s a lot of fun. Think Afro-pop meets Haircut 100 meets Pavement and you’ve got the idea. As far as the backlash goes, well, if you’re truly interested you can google for it. I, for one, like to let the music speak for itself. If others like it, fine. If others don’t, that’s fine too.
Please Panic, The Vulgar Boatmen. I first heard this group back in 1990 when my buddy Chris and drummer of our then band A Small Parish turned me on to their debut album, You and Your Sister. From the opening notes of that LP I was smitten; it was both familiar and folk-based, yet wholly original and energized. Since then, they’ve released only two albums Please Panic in 1992 and Opposite Sex in 1995, with Please Panic arguably being their masterwork. Describing their music is difficult because it somehow transcends the folk rock genre it most aptly fits. It’s sparse, sweet, sonorous, deceptively simple and above all moving. Why the band in the heyday of alternative rock never rose to great heights is a complete mystery that’s forever baffled their small but very loyal fan base. There are some great songwriting duos out there — Lennon and McCartney, Johnny Marr and Morrissey, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Difford and Tilbrook, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, Holland and Dozier, George and Barbara Gershwin — but none of them have written a more affecting and plaintive love song than the Boatmen’s Robert Ray and Dale Lawrence’s “You Don’t Love Me Yet”. Opinion? Perhaps. But it’s an amazing piece of music.
And there you have it. Hopefully I’ve inspired you to check out some of these artists or any of the others I’ve included on my list and that you enjoy what you hear. If you do, or have any recommendations for me, please leave a comment — I love the feedback. Also, as an added bonus, I’ve included some links to the music of some friends of mine. Again, if you like what you hear; purchase it, download it or simply let them know what you think. It’s good stuff.