Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Mix: Gold & Sage

Howdy Everybody,
So here's a download of my latest mix. It's all over the map, and rather awesome. I hope you enjoy the tunes:

Open the zip file and drag the folder into your iTunes. Then to add this mix as a playlist: Select "File" --> "Library" --> "Import Playlist" Then select the .xml file in this folder. Lemme know if you have any questions. And Boo-ya.

1. Generationals - When They Fight, They Fight
2. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Contender
3. Metric - Gimme Sympathy
4. Sum & Belief are the Lone Wolf - Kakalak All-Stars
5. Mos Def - Priority
6. Joe Henry - Stars
7. Fruit Bats - Singing Joy To The World
8. Magnolia Electric Co. - O! Grace
9. Lucero - Hey Darlin' Do You Gamble
10. Chuck Prophet - ¡Let Freedom Ring!
11. Gabriel Sullivan - Sewer Cats
12. Blind Pilot - Two Towns From Me
13. The Swim - Zoo Song
14. Bueno - Some Connection
15. The Drakes - Pitiful Place
16. Billy Bragg - Levi Stubbs' Tears
17. Gillian Welch - Look At Miss Ohio
18. Tom Waits - Fannin Street
19. Townes Van Zandt - Colorado Girl -> Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
20. Bob Dylan - She's Your Lover Now

Have a wonderful 2010...

2009 Best Shows

I let this list stretch a little long, but hey, I saw more than 80 shows this year and a hell of a lot of them were amazing.

Live music is what I live on, as much as anything else. I can’t count the times when I’ve gone out to see a show after a subpar day or few days and – pretty much no matter who was playing – was instantly removed from that bad space.

And that’s just the low end. At the high end, live music is at the core of some of my greatest experiences, year in and year out. Few things are greater than traveling for a great show experience, combining the camaraderie of great friends with a rare tour, or a uniquely enjoyable venue.

I was tempted to rank these, but that’s just too difficult, so I’m going with chronological order. I will, however, say this about what was probably my greatest show of the year: Mr. Chair, my longtime great friend and host in Denver, said he’d never seen me happier than when Okkervil River came out to join Wilco for an encore of “California Stars” on a gloriously beautiful July 3 night at Red Rocks. And he’s probably right.

• Elvis Perkins / Delta Spirit @ Club Congress, March 16
This was my first time seeing Perkins - whose record ended up as my best of 2009 - and the band was just so perfect. It's rare that seeing a band for the first time feels as comfortable as if you'd had their music forever, but that was the case with Perkins. (And his set at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in October was just as good.)

• Mike Watt / Garboski @ Plush, April 17
Sometimes you have to co-opt a little reverence. Mike Watt is my brother's favorite musician ever, and though it hardly meant as much to me as it did to him, seeing him play live was a treasure. Plus, he sits on the edge of the stage after every show, selling T-shirts out of a garbage band and signing whatever anybody wants. Now that's punk rock.

• Unwigged & Unglued @ Phoenix Dodge Theater, April 27
Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer could just sit on stage gabbing for two hours and it'd be worth seeing. Add in acoustic Spinal Tap and A Might Wind songs and it's two hours of high entertainment. What I love most about the trio's songs is how subtely the humor laces itself into the music. My full recap.

• SwedeFest @ Sport’s on Congress, May 3
Few things in life get better than getting several favorite local bands to play at a ridiculously self-indulgent 30th birthday celebration. Check out the full recap if you dare.

• Avett Brothers @ Rialto Theatre (and Bookman’s), May 7
Like I said at the time, every great show should be paired with an intimate afternoon performance that same day.

• Jonathan Richman @ Club Congress, June 5
Another one in which I borrowed some reverence from my brother... Richman is as great as they come and it's damn near impossible to believe that he's been recording music for 39 years already.

• Sunset Rubdown @ Plush, June 22
Early week summer shows in Tucson are notoriously under-attended, but still, this band deserved a lot more from the crowd. I don't think I would've fallen so much for Dragonslayer (my #2 record of the year) had I not seen it live first. Krug is definitely a musical genius.

• Wilco / Okkervil River @ Red Rocks, July 3
My aforementioned happiest moment... Read the full review.

• Outside Lands Festival @ Golden Gate Park, Aug. 28-30
Perhaps not as great as the previous year, with Radiohead, Tom Petty and Wilco headlining, nonetheless the 2009 Outside Lands was packed with great moments: Built to Spill, The National, Pearl Jam, TV on the Radio, Avett Brothers and Band of Horses, just to name a few, as well as the best tater tots I've ever had. Check the full recap.

• Bon Iver / Megafaun @ Oakland Fox Theater, Sept. 24
I wrote a feature on Bon Iver for the East Bay Express in advance of the show, and I'd seen the band before, so I knew what to expect: a gathering storm, if you will, of percussion and surging guitars all held together by Justin Vernon's singing, the high and often spooky howl that stamps his music with such a tremendous feeling of isolation. And they delivered. The hushed crowd developing a burning intensity as 4,000 voices came together for the chorus "What might have been lost."

• Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Oct. 2-4
From Steve Earle joining Tom Morello to sing "This Land is Your Land" on the first day to "Red Dirt Girl" in Emmylou Harris' closing set, this was once again a weekend for the ages. My full recap.

• Billy Bragg @ Great American Music Hall, Oct. 6
Billy Bragg had been my most coveted live act - the one I wanted to see most but never had - and I managed to see him twice in two days. One man, one guitar, two hours and throughout, I felt like one lucky sonuvabitch to even be there.

• Yo La Tengo @ Tempe Marquee Theater, Oct. 14
I couldn't have been more impressed with Yo La Tengo's seamless versatility. In a rare appearance in the Southwest, the band sent me from fan to superfan.

• Blind Pilot / The Low Anthem @ Plush, Oct. 25
Two quite different takes on modern folk music, Blind Pilot and the Low Anthem were a perfect pairing. Both bands feature excellent songwriters, but it was a cover song that blew me away the most:

• Dinosaur Jr. @ Tempe Marquee Theater, Nov. 3
I think J. Mascis is the best guitar player I've ever seen live.

• Calexico “Flor de Muertos” @ Rialto Theatre, Nov. 8
What a magical night: Calexico closing the festivities for the only-in-Tucson All Souls Procession, with extra great visuals for the filming of a live concert DVD. Amazing sound, great combination of mariachi, mambo and Calexico's unique blend of everything. And they did Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer." I can't wait for the DVD.

• Vic Chesnutt @ Club Congress, Dec. 2
It's tremendously sad that I can say I saw the third to last show Vic ever performed. What a uniquely captivating performer and songwriter - and what a loss for all his fans that he passed away on Christmas. In a review of the show, I wrote: "Live, Vic Chesnutt is a head rush, a grippingly emotional singer whose voice comes along like a raging windstorm. Some performers are great showmen – Vic is possessed." Check out the full review. And may you rest in peace, Vic.

Billy Bragg - Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key (live)
Blind Pilot - Two Towns From Me (Live Laundromatinee session)
Calexico - Across the Wire (live)
Vic Chesnutt - Flirted with You All My Life (live, final show)

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 Best Albums

This is the big one - the best/favorite albums of the year. This is the list that any music critic, blogger or big-time enthusiast hangs his or her hat on, the one that's subject to more internal debate than all others.

I joined the Usual Gang of Idiots over at the Tucson Weekly this year, so check out the four-barreled cannon of music writer awesomeness where this was originally printed.

And if you're really into lists, check out the amazingly thorough master list over at Large Hearted Boy... wow.

1. Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Elvis Perkins in Dearland (XL)

On his second album, this extraordinarily talented songwriter assembled a full-time band to perfect a ramshackle folk sound—full of horns, organ and unorthodox percussion—that updates The Band by way of Neutral Milk Hotel. "Doomsday" is the song of the year, with an exultant horn intro becoming a stomping celebration of life, defiant even against doomsday.

DOWNLOAD: Elvis Perkins in Dearland - Shampoo

2. Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar)

Spencer Krug is at his best crafting intense and pummeling music, but by backing away slightly from his more experimental impulses, Krug has made his best album yet. Dragonslayer's greatest achievement is its taut focus that makes bombastic, lengthy and relentlessly twisting songs nonetheless accessible and catchy throughout.

DOWNLOAD: Sunset Rubdown - Idiot Heart

3. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (ANTI-)

Taking inspiration from nature's tumultuous power, Neko Case has written her most-assured, least-enigmatic batch of songs yet. Anchored by her soaring, radiant voice, the record updates Case's usual dreamy atmospheric sound with catchier songs like "People Got a Lotta Nerve" and "I'm an Animal."

DOWNLOAD: Neko Case - People Got A Lotta Nerve

4. Magnolia Electric Co., Josephine (Secretly Canadian)

Jason Molina's reedy, wounded voice gives this record a piercing, lonesome sorrow, matched impeccably by lyrics drenched in images of the open sky, deep shadows, ghosts and the faraway horizon.

DOWNLOAD: Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine

5. The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You (American/Sony)

With major-label polish from Rick Rubin, the Avett Brothers reach toward both rowdier rock songs and tender ballads, leaving their rootsy bluegrass as background accents. But it is versatility, talent and honest songwriting that carry the day for the Avetts, who offer musical abundance like few others.

VIDEO: The Avett Brothers - I And Love And You

6. Fruit Bats, The Ruminant Band (Sub Pop)

The Fruit Bats turn out 11 songs of blissful, sunny rock music. This is the best Beatles-influenced album of the year, full of the quirky enthusiasm that sparked labels like "zoology rock," "bootgazer" and "rustic pop."

DOWNLOAD: Fruit Bats - The Ruminant Band

7. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland)

This flawless debut cradles starry-eyed romance in fuzzy guitars, driving beats and boy-girl harmonies, a winning aesthetic for a band that wears both hearts and influences on its sleeve.

DOWNLOAD: The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Come Saturday

8. The Lone Wolf, Sum and Belief Are the Lone Wolf (Worker B)

The beats weave in acoustic guitar, piano, banjo and harmonica, and the lyrics are imaginative, poetic storytelling. Sum and Belief's first collaborative album sounds like what hip-hop might have been in the 1960s, mixing with blues, R&B and soul.

LISTEN: Sum & Belief Are The Lone Wolf

9. Metric, Fantasies (Metric)

This electrifying dance record stacks high-wire guitar riffs, surging keyboards and heavy bass on driving beats, but it's Emily Haines' spellbinding vocals that provide the irresistible charm.

VIDEO: Metric - Sick Muse

10. Wilco, Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)

Hardly complacent with its most stable lineup in 15 years, Wilco's latest features mesmerizing guitar freak-outs, sweet ballads and jaunty piano rock. It's more proof that Wilco is the best band working today.

LISTEN: Wilco - Wilco (The Album)

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
Vic Chesnutt - At The Cut
Clem Snide - Hungry Bird
Justin Townes Earle - Midnight At The Movies
Fourkiller Flats - Treasure & Trash
Generationals - Con Law
Girls - Album
Golden Boots - Winter of Our Discotheque
Joe Henry - Blood From Stars
Mason Jennings - Blood of Man
Low Anthem - Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
Lucero - 1372 Overton Park
Megafaun - Gather, Form & Fly
Mos Def - The Ecstatic
Modest Mouse - No One's First And You're Next
Pearl Jam - Backspacer
Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Provocative Whites - Evolym
Chuck Prophet - ¡Let Freedom Ring!
Dave Rawlings Machine - A Friend of A Friend
Tom Russell - Blood & Candle Smoke
Gabriel Sullivan - By The Dirt
Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs

Previous Years:


2009 Album Reviews

Moving along with my 2009 Year in Review, here are links to all of the album and live reviews I wrote this year for the Tucson Weekly, East Bay Express and Zocalo:

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
Clem Snide - Hungry Bird
Bob Dylan - Together Through Life
Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band - Outer South
Metric - Fantasies
Wilco - Wilco (The Album)
Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine
The Skygreen Leopards - Gorgeous Johnny
Joe Henry - Blood From Stars
Sum & Belief - The Lone Wolf
Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs
J. Tillman - A Year in the Kingdom
The Dodos - Time to Die
Circulatory System - Signal Morning
The Avett Brothers - I And Love And You
fun. - Aim and Ignite
Alec Ounsworth - Mo Beauty
Grand Archives - Keep In Mind Frankenstein
Gabriel Sullivan - By The Dirt
Chuck Prophet - ¡Let Freedom Ring!
Lucero - 1372 Overton Park

Live Reviews:
Gary Louris & Mark Olson
The Handsome Family

Starting the 2009 review

It's surprising how much more music you can listen to when you start making it at least a part of your job. I've kept this blog for almost six years now (crazy!) but the dedicated music focus goes back about three years. And in 2009 I started writing music reviews and features for other publications, mainly the Tucson Weekly and East Bay Express.

I want to start my 2009 Year In Review by looking back at some of that work, before jumping into the shows and albums of the year (and then the Albums of the Decade!). Below is a quick roundup of my feature stories for the year, then some of the bigger blog posts. Click through if you'd like:

Fourkiller Flats
Fruit Bats
HOCO Festival
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
Bon Iver
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival (Billy Bragg, Nick Lowe, Jimmie Dale Gilmore & Dave Alvin)
The Generationals

Top Blog posts:
Making Mixes
My Walls
Tucson Festival of Books Recap
UnWigged Review
SwedeFest Recap
Wilco & Okkervil River @ Red Rocks
Outside Lands Recap
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Recap
Vic Chesnutt

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Vic Chesnutt – two albums and a show

The only problem with having two new Vic Chesnutt records is the temptation to listen to both consecutively, which just may be more than most people can take. This is heavy, concentrated stuff, songs that approach like lurking danger, songs that convey the unavoidable pitfalls of self-indulgence and ultimately the inescapability of life’s shadowy depths.

To listen to Vic Chesnutt is to feel saturated in grief and despair, but also to walk hand-in-hand with the wise, to see beauty unexpected unravel from the lessons of life. The mind needs some time to work its way through the crevices in Chesnutt’s songs, time to smell the rotting roses along the way.

And those are just his records.

Live, Vic Chesnutt is a head rush, a grippingly emotional singer whose voice comes along like a raging windstorm. Some performers are great showmen – Vic is possessed.

I’m writing primarily about Chesnutt’s latest two records – At The Cut and Skitter On Take-Off, both released this year – as well as (belatedly) his performance at Club Congress two weeks ago, but because of his uniqueness as a songwriter and performer, to write about Vic at all is to write about him in total.

I haven’t listened to all of his albums, but I’ve heard several since my introduction to his music at the Hotel Congress Festival in 2006, both new and old, and I’ve never been able to make clear exactly where Vic belongs on the spectrum of folk/country/rock music. Perhaps he inhabits his own genre, much like Tom Waits does, because almost nobody else can even exist out on those crossroads of profoundly weird and exceptionally talented.

Call it Southern gothic country, spook-folk or asylum rock, whatever it is, Vic has an authoritative magnetism, a pull familiar to fans of horror movies, haunted houses, murder ballads and the grotesque, morbidly curious thrill of slowing down on the roadway to view a mangled auto. Like I said, while tempting it’s nearly impossible to listen to two albums consecutively.

Chesnutt rarely writes pretty or catchy music, but what he puts onto record is truer to the trappings of human vice and frailty than perhaps any other writer – not just songwriter, novelists, essayists and poets as well fall in behind Vic – working today. And it’s not just the big-ticket items like death, fear and despair that haunt his songs – Vic puts more of life’s mundane trickeries into song than anybody, and certainly more humor than I’ve yet described.

Ultimately, his songs are not meant to be fancy or popular, they’re meant to drag you, by the hand, into a mythically dark forest, step-by-step, until you realize you’re further in than you’d ever want to go by yourself.

Chesnutt’s two 2009 records are starkly different from one another in sound, reflecting a collaborative versatility and a willingness to give up some control and let other folks help find out where the songs want to go.

At The Cut finds Chesnutt teaming with Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, the same band and production team that guided his first album on Constellation Records. The album opens with spare picked notes on an acoustic guitar, but the record’s overall sound is more of an electrified menace.

“Coward,” with Chesnutt screaming over pounding drums, and “Chain,” with an ominous and elemental power, are standout tracks, both live and on record.

But later on is the album’s true goldmine: “Flirted With You All My Life,” which may be as close to a signature song as Chesnutt has written yet. With a chorus of “O! Death!” he lays bare the suicidal longings that have crept up in his life. But the message is two-fold as Death also emerges as a cruel tease, one who ultimately must be told “I’m not ready yet.” In a song as shockingly personal as any I’ve heard, Vic manages to evoke both lightness and darkness in equal measure. Amazing.

Skitter On Take-Off, meanwhile, is spare and acoustic, with little more than Vic’s guitar and voice. Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins make up his “band” – with some spare drums from Larkin and harmonium and guitar from Richman – and production team this go around, and while it’s often softer sounding, Skitter may be even darker in lyrical tone.

Chesnutt edges political on “Dick Cheney,” marveling at the Machiavellian skills yet clearly reveling in the song's deconstruction of such a purely evil man, hiding instead of facing up to “all the unconscionable wrong” he did.

“Worst Friend” is a darkly hilarious, nearly eight-minute song about friends with a seemingly endless list of bizarre character traits (“You’ve got one friend who is really into feet, sexually; You’ve got one friend who could be a competitive eater; You’ve got one friend who claims to have taken a dump in the White House). But, in the kicker, Chesnutt sings “I’m the worst friend in the world / when you are down, I’m nowhere to be found.”

At Congress, Chesnutt played with a seven-piece band – basically his At The Cut collaborators – to flesh out his songs with a ragged energy. Even with plenty of backing, Chesnutt’s own guitar playing is always a stronger element of the show than I expect.

On “Coward,” the crescendo featured Vic screaming first into his microphone but then into his guitar pickup, producing a haunting wail. Shiver…

Song after song, the performance grew in emotional weight and there’s no way to adequately describe the attraction or appreciation I felt for such a roller-coaster ride that was so thrilling in both a visceral and an intellectual level. Few musicians can do precisely that, and it’s a shame that so few people are willing to look for it in the music they seek.

One thing is certain: the minor keys were made for Vic Chesnutt. And while that will never win him the fans his songwriting talents deserve, it also ensures that he’ll have the enduring and complete attention of every music fan he does capture.

I also suggest reading a some recent Vic Chesnutt interviews, at Aquarium Drunkard, NPR and Prefix magazine.

Vic Chesnutt - Flirted With You All My Life
Vic Chesnutt - Chain

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review: Chuck Prophet - ¡Let Freedom Ring!

My review of Chuck Prophet's latest album is in this week's issue of the East Bay Express:

In an America that by bait-and-switch twists and stacked decks has mostly succeeded in pillaging itself, simply holding on now qualifies as hoping for the best.

With his richest album in a long career, Chuck Prophet manages to capture that cruel truth while avoiding traps on both sides, steering clear of falsely dressed-up, teeth-whitened optimism and the simmering anger of knee-jerk cynicism. By looking at the stagnating disillusion from the outside, Prophet's ¡Let Freedom Ring! is the album for our times, weaving together the failures of this American dream with its fraying cords of hope — what Bruce Springsteen captured so well during the dismal Reagan years (and failed so miserably at repeating on this year's Working On A Dream).

Recorded in the spring amid swine-flu panic and an earthquake in Mexico City, on equipment Prophet describes as "state-of-the-art, for 1958," the record is no-frills, timeless rock 'n' roll, urgent and sharp, but also soothing like an after-work beer. The title track is a barroom rocker, with Prophet singing, Let there be darkness, let there be light, as the hawk cripples the dove over a joyous slide-guitar riff. "American Man" is garage-rock-infused with a little Tom Petty drawl, catchy "ooh-wee-ooh" backup vocals and more excellent licks from the former Green on Red guitarist.

In recording what he calls "a political album for nonpolitical people," Prophet bypasses slogans and battle cries for the simpler truths: that even staring down the gun barrels of Wall Street's robber barons and Washington's warmongers, redemption is no further than friends, family, love, and good times. Life is only so long, Prophet sings on the album closer. Don't let it rub you raw. (Yep Roc)

Chuck Prophet - American Man

The Swim - I'm On Fire

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Sometimes I wish everyone I know all knew each other, just as well as I know everybody.

New Elliott Smith track

As I've been thinking about the decade in music, one question in particular is how Elliott Smith fits in. I saw him perform solo acoustic in the fall of 2000, which was at the beginning of my fandom. I worked backwards from Figure 8 through the rest of his albums, experiencing his evolution in reverse. After his death, his final record would have to stand as a final statement. And From A Basement on The Hill was an incredible album. Then the New Moon set of rarities, outtakes and whatnot became another strong posthumous statement of Smith's excellence and talent.

Today comes news from Kill Rock Stars that Smith's one-time label is adding two more of his releases to its catalog: Roman Candle and From a Basement on the Hill. Oh, and guess what? A new and unreleased track accompanies the announcement.

"Cecilia/Amanda" was recorded in 1997, which makes it roughly Either/Or or XO era. And it just feels so good to have a new song from Elliott Smith as this decade nears it's close.

Elliott Smith - Cecilia/Amanda

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Shearwater back with new song, album news

Another day, another dispatch from Matador Records, and another blog post to suggest that a band makes sure to add Tucson to its 2010 tour schedule...

Since I first met Jonathan Meiburg (about six year ago), he's left Okkervil River to focus all of his attention on Shearwater, with each album seeing more and more acclaim. The Golden Archipelago is Shearwater's third album to be released on Matador, and judging from the cover, Meiburg is still concerned with not only birds, but islands, the sea and a certain mystical otherworldness that remains at the core of his songwriting.

Add this to your no-doubt quickly growing list of most-anticipated albums for 2010...

Shearwater - Castaways

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

New Ted Leo track

Matador released the first track from the upcoming Ted Leo and the Pharmacists record yesterday, and I'm no doubt the last music blogger out there to write about it.

But that's OK - this is as much a request for the good Mr. Leo and his Pharm.D.'s to make sure that Tucson is once again on the agenda for whatever touring they endeavor to undertake in support of Brutalist Bricks. (And furthermore, you blokes should probably go ahead and have The Swim opening up the show again - that was awesome last time around!)

Anyway, the song is fantastic, a hard-hitting yet catchy track that will no doubt rise to the top of the heap in 2010. If these first few listens are any indication, "Even Heroes Have to Die" will soon top out "Me & Mia" as my favorite TL&P song, and if the rest of the album is just as strong, it'll top out Shake the Sheets, his best so far, as far as I'm concerned.

Ted Leo - Even Heroes Have to Die