Friday, January 13, 2012

The Ultimate Together Thing

Ben Folds headlines a concert for the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding

Ben Folds cleared his schedule, dropped all other projects and dedicated this month to focusing on writing songs for what will be the first Ben Folds Five record in 13 years.

Then the call came from Ron Barber's Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, requesting a benefit performance. Without hesitating, Folds put the long-awaited reunion album on hold for a bit.

"I'm writing a record, and I want to be completely present for it. But this is special," Folds says. "When something that horrible happens, anybody with any soul certainly wants to see something positive out of it. You can't twist it into a positive thing, but you certainly can dig in and find out how you can help other people with it."

Barber, the district director for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot twice on Jan. 8, 2011, and continues to recover. His first go at a benefit concert for the fund he dreamed up while still in a hospital bed brought Jackson Browne, Alice Cooper, David Crosby, Graham Nash and a host of other performers to the Tucson Convention Center in March.

"When we put together the fund, we deliberately included music and other performance arts as part of our mission," says Barber, a regular concertgoer and avid music fan. "It's fair to say that music and other kinds of entertainment really do bring people together. For us, my family and the fund, it's an essential part of what we're about."

Barber chose Folds—after a suggestion from Browne's manager—as an artist who appeals to a different generation. Barber envisions the Civility concerts as an ongoing series of smaller performances, perhaps two or three a year. He'd like to spotlight several singer-songwriters next.

"There's abundant evidence that music has a healing power and a unifying power," Barber says.

Folds is of the same mind.

"Anthropologists, scientists, priests—the whole lot of them would agree. It is the ultimate together thing," he says. "There's a harmony about the whole thing that does seem to be very disarming. I don't really know why, but it seems to be a basic human function. People seem to, for whatever reason, generally forget differences. There's a ritual about it. Time can kind of stand still—and it's a real responsibility for a musician, especially right now when politics are so extremely mindlessly volatile. Music disarms that."

Known for his physical brand of piano rock and frequently humorous lyrics, Folds carved out a niche quite unusual in the alternative-rock world with the self-titled debut album, Ben Folds Five, in 1995.

The piano "was a help and a hindrance, too. I see other bands that have taken the piano since we opened that door at that moment. They understand how to do it and drive it home, and I'm not sure we ever got the memo on that one, but we did it the way we knew how," Folds says. "It was just natural, because that's what I did as a kid. But (piano) was so far out of style by the time I was of age that I just took it as good luck."

After three well-regarded albums, Ben Folds Five broke up, and Folds himself went on to release three full-length solo albums and several EPs.

But the next dozen years also saw him perform, record and produce in a wide variety of collaborative projects, joining with Joe Jackson, William Shatner, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Amanda Palmer, Sara Bareilles, novelist Nick Hornby, college a cappella groups and symphony orchestras across the United States and Australia.

"It's certainly entertaining, and it must be teaching me something. I like to see the way people work," Folds says. "It's always affirming, because even the masters don't know much; they don't know how they do it exactly. So often, their process can appear as if it's fucking hackery, just like they're swinging in the dark. What separates the mice from the men is that some of the hacks can put it together and find a voice and come through that process."

Collaboration and longevity have given Folds a close view of the music industry's rapid changes. An artist comfortable going against the grain, Folds appreciates a more-direct connection with his audience that technology affords.

"The balance has changed as far as what is expected of an artist, commercially and remaining creative in the middle of all of that," he says. "There was the distraction for about 30 years that musicians could well become millionaires, and many did in a time period that's really just a blip on the map. It's not going to happen again for a while. Now the distraction is the fact that we can't become millionaires, and I think a healthy thing is coming of it.

"Musicians are now coming up understanding and believing they will not likely get rich doing what they do, so it becomes more about what they can offer. That's always been the musician on the street busking, and the musicians in the churches. You should get back enough to live, and that's what musicians are heading toward now."

Folds, 45, spent much of the last year combing through his own archives to compile the career-spanning The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective. The project grew to three distinct formats aimed to please die-hard fans and newbies alike: an 18-song single disc release; a three-disc version with 43 additional live songs, rarities and outtakes; and a vault-clearing 56-track digital collection of rarities.

"It was a shitload of tapes. It was kind of weird to hear hours and hours, days and weeks of shit you don't remember doing—and I wasn't even on drugs. I just did so much," Folds says. "It's also interesting to hear my development as a person versus my development as an artist. I could hear the person speaking between the songs on the tape, and I'd think he's a child, and then I'd hear the songs and hear somebody who knew a lot more than the person who was speaking."

Now Folds is going back to the band that first broke him big, with Darren Jessee on drums and Robert Sledge on bass. The trio recorded three new songs for The Best Imitation of Myself and will start new recording sessions late this month.

Published Jan. 12, 2012 in the Tucson Weekly.

Live - Shawn Harris and Full Release, Big Meridox, WHSK, Mr. Head's, Jan. 7

Live, Big Meridox is the "beast" he calls himself in rhyme, tense and confrontational as he roams the crowd and delivers lines with urgency and, at times, an edgy growl. Joined by DJ Bonus on turntables and a MacBook, Meridox performed 12 songs, produced by Gunky Knuckles.

Sweating and swaggering like a boxer, Meridox gives a physical performance, stalking around the crowd to get in people's faces. On a performance and video shoot for his new "Whiskey Breath" single, Meridox hopped onto tables to bring the crowd in closer around him, holding court as he un-spooled lines above their heads.

Meridox doesn't shy away from bravado in his lyrics, but his songs take any number of surprising turns. He spits references from the limitless well of a trivia ace—a cultural mash-up of subject matter that he stitches together on the fly.

Poetic but harsh, Big Ox raps smart, but not sensitive: "Too evil to go emo," he raps on "Brutus." Knowledge is his game, but the perspective tends to come from the Hobbes school of "nasty, brutish and short."

Open barely a year, Mr. Head's, the art bar adjacent to a glass-blowing studio/shop, has become perhaps Tucson's top spot for hip hop, with an ever-changing spray-painted mural covering one wall of the spacious patio.

The TAMMIES reigning hip-hop champion Shaun Harris and his band, Full Release, closed the show. The four-piece band—bass, drums, guitar and trombone—combined with DJ Bonus on a blend of soul, funk and spacey psychedelic rock. A fluid performer, Harris rhymes fast and furious when called for, and he can sing the hooks too.

Harris can write songs loaded with geek humor—one is about Ewoks—but he's best on the honest, personal stuff. Rapping about the shitty economy, his diabetes struggle and his little brother being sentenced to 25 years in prison, Harris is full of the same sort of honest desperation that brought hip hop into its own as an art form.

Opening was the duo WHSK, with heady, stream-of-consciousness rhymes, some offbeat flourishes—one backing track was made by beat-boxing into a didgeridoo—and a finish-each-others-sentences freestyle.

Published Jan. 12, 2012 in the Tucson Weekly.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Top albums of 2011

1. Tom Waits, Bad as Me (ANTI-)

If you agree—in any way—that "Hell Broke Luce" in 2011, then Bad as Me is the record to turn to for some wisdom and advice amid the chaos. Dark, preposterous, incensed and confrontational, Bad as Me encapsulates a year that saw misery boil over into anger. The message Waits delivers, through stomps and shouts: This year's optimism is found in revolt.

2. The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)

Adam Granduciel takes some cues from Dylan and Springsteen, but Slave Ambient is on an entirely different sonic plane. On a dense bed of layered loops, ambient tones and swirling textures are striking and forceful rock songs, a sort of classic rock from some alternate universe.

3. Wye Oak, Civilian (Merge)

Psychedelic folk might be an accurate label, but it falls far short of capturing what's so successful about Wye Oak's dynamic sound. "Civilian" is my top song of the year, a gathering storm—tense, beautiful and otherworldly—that then explodes with chaotic energy.

4. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)

Justin Vernon buried his quiet, somber muse and set out to chase a multihued adventurous one on Bon Iver. It's a provocative shift, but the album's complexity feeds off an exploratory urgency that pushes the songs into a bigger world, with rich instrumentation and an impressive depth and fluidity.

5. Richard Buckner, Our Blood (Merge)

An esoteric and challenging songwriter, Buckner is second to none. Our Blood is an album of resuscitated and patched sounds, of peripheral intrusions, of expelled breath. Its songs are full of strange and seemingly disconnected details, short on explanatory meat, but marvelously evocative.

6. Roadside Graves, We Can Take Care of Ourselves (Autumn Tone)

Using S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders as a cornerstone, the Roadside Graves explore the struggles of outsiders everywhere, with a sprawling sort of Americana that expertly keys in on the songs' emotional shifts.

7. Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear)

On his best album since Graceland, Paul Simon is both meditative and fearless, writing songs with restless curiosity to probe spirituality, mortality and the endless, mysterious power of love.

8. Akron/Family, Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT (Dead Oceans)

An album written on a Japanese volcano and recorded in an abandoned Detroit train station, this is a musical collage of ideas and sounds, pushing the experimental boundaries of folk music.

9. Murs, Love and Rockets Vol. 1: The Transformation (BluRoc)

One of hip-hop's most distinctly talented lyricists, Murs teams with producer Ski Beatz on an album of odes to love and marriage, international travelogues and vivid narratives.

10. Crooked Fingers, Breaks in the Armor (Merge)

Sparse in sound and blunt in lyrics, Eric Bachmann's latest is an album about vulnerability and perseverance, songs that speak to intensely personal struggles.

Honorable Mention: As one of the organizers/producers of the Luz de Vida compilation, it's hardly fair for me to include it in the list. But it's a stunning collection of songs that meant more to me this year than any other music.

Wilco, The Whole Love; Mr. Gnome, Madness in Miniature; Amos Lee, Mission Bell; Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues; The Low Anthem, Smart Flesh; Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest; The Roots, Undun; Iron and Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean; Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde; Generationals, Actor-Caster; St. Vincent, Strange Mercy; Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo.

Published Jan. 5, 2012 in the Tucson Weekly.

Review: Noel Gallagher - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds

As the more-thoughtful Oasis brother, Noel Gallagher's best moments tended to turn up on hit singles as well as around the band's fringes, like B-sides and the Noel-sung MTV Unplugged. Boastful and arrogant, Oasis was gunning for the highest peaks, and that often involved a certain sound and swagger that didn't incorporate the best of Noel's skills.

Neither, exactly, does this first solo album.

While Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds stacks up well against the albums from Oasis' declining years, it's weighted with a different set of expectations. Yet stripped of any competition for the album's creative direction, Noel's songwriting is too often flat and simplistic—"If I had the time, I'd stop the world and make you mine, and every day would stay the same with you," he sings on "If I Had a Gun."

The album's best songs—like "AKA ... Broken Arrow" and "Stop the Clocks"—bring back the sound of that Brit-pop grandeur. The songs are well-crafted and include some refreshing instrumental flourishes—horn breaks on "Dream On" and "The Death of You And Me," more keyboards and strings, and even some subtle but effective banjo and pedal steel.

The post-Oasis solo albums reveal just how well-balanced the Gallagher brothers' strengths were. And it's no surprise that what Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds really needs is a little of Liam's bombastic energy.

Published Dec. 29, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Review: The Roots - Undun

The Roots' Undun is a character study and album-length epitaph of the fictional Redford Stephens, whose short inner-city life of crime and consequence yields a meditation on fate, mortality and karmic justice.

The band's first concept album arrives with vivid narrative details, moody instrumentals and a documentary-style detachment. Stephens' tragic arc (1974-1999) is presented through the character's own thoughts, a self-aware mix of bravado and doubt. When the score inevitably gets settled, it's the man's own fingerprints that are all over his undoing.

"It's the flight of my fall and it's right on the wall," raps Black Thought on "I Remember," a song that captures the moment in Stephens' story when rise turns to fall. Elsewhere, the lyrics are shot through with imagery of war and allusions that range from the Bible to Greek mythology, from Hammurabi to F.D.R. to the Sudanese genocide.

It's an edgy and somber album, and at first pass, the strengths are the songs that really pop ("Kool On," "The OtherSide"). But close listening reveals more subtle moments when Undun's cohesiveness and continuity shine.

Undun closes with a four-song instrumental suite that goes from somber strings and piano to nightmarish clang and clatter, a sort of chaotic anxiety that draws the listener to a place that even Black Thought's bleakest lyrics can't quite reach.

To call The Roots incomparable at this point is surely redundant, but more than anything the band has recorded before, Undun is an album that couldn't possibly come from anyone else.

Published Dec. 22, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Songs of the year

I'll be posting my list of the top albums of 2011 a bit later, but in the meantime here are 13 songs from other albums that really stood out for me this year.

Mates of State - Palomino

Dum Dum Girls - Bedroom Eyes

Those Darlins - Be Your Bro

Centro-Matic - Only In My Double Mind

Okkervil River - Wake and Be Fine

Wanda Jackson - Thunder on the Mountain

The Black Lips - New Direction

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Heart In Your Heartbreak

Lykke Li - I Follow Rivers

Cults - Go Outside

Frank Turner - I Still Believe

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Senator

Vetiver - Wonder Why