Friday, December 27, 2013

Favorites of 2013

Another December, another realization that I hadn't the vaguest notion as to what was hot and/or well-regarded this year, despite consuming what for me felt like a lot of newly released music. And so the countdown below once again is my favorites of the year -- not necessarily the best.

For me, 2013 challenged expectations as new albums from artists I'd only recently came to know had me reassessing on the fly. Frank Turner and Brett Dennen each made good records in 2013 but I'm not sure if either artist really evolved to my satisfaction. There are fewer artists from my youth cracking the 2013 list than in 2012; but the sounds of the old days remain well-represented.

And so, on with the Dad-Rock Top Ten. Thanks to the youtubers out there!

The gentle Canadian folkie eschewed the big rock production of his last LP and did a delicate thing loaded with french horns and strings, and in the case of the below song -- a classic soul knockout punch I never see coming.

Jonathan Wilson: FANFARE
I'd never even heard of this guy until a few months ago, but he did a terrific sounding, evocative double-album recalling 70s artists ranging from John Lennon to Dennis Wilson to CSNY to Steely Dan in the below cut:

This is Norah Jones' backup band doing an easy country rock groove, reminiscent of Ben Kweller's recent work. Goes down easy.

In the year that Lou Reed died, here's a very New York City-sounding band whose intimate vocals and relaxed coolness might remind you. (Don't get too attached, as I just read this band has already broken up).

And here's a band that got back together in 2013: Gallops out of the gate with five straight rip-roaring, beer-chugging anthems. They don't hold much back.

I have seen the future of skiffle .... and it's name is Jake Bugg.

I never cared for the Smiths, Johnny's not much of a singer, and the production is too loud, but the man can rock.

Folkie explores unraveling relationships and grief with maturity and eloquence. This song about collateral damage just knocks me out even though (because?) it reminds me of Paul Simon's "Under African Skies." Beautifully done.

Power-pop band led by comedian Dave Hill delivers on the power and comedy. Not too serious but serious fun: Put your restless heart in my restless hands.

John Paul Keith: MEMPHIS CIRCA 3AM
Sun Records style roots rocker recalls Elvis, Johnny, Roy, Marshall Crenshaw and Chris Isaak. Sizzling!

But there's more! I culled these 10 from an an ongoing list of songs I liked as I streamed them at Rdio. The playlist probably works best as a shuffle.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The weather's fine, the sky is blue.

I was recently challenged to consume an R.E.M. album a day for 15 days straight, and pretty much succeeded.    Early REM was no problem: I'd latched on early as a result of having accidentally seen them perform pre-Murmur. I fell hard for that album and the next two especially, and hung on as a big fan through MONSTER when I lost the thread for good.

NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI, UP and REVEAL aren't their best three albums by a long shot but as I recently learned, each has their charms. As the Berry-less band bounced through lengthy experiments in mature, composed, electronically enhanced pop, each album became a 65-minute chore with moments of resplendence, none to my ears better than the opener on REVEAL, appropriately titled "The Lifting."

My old favorite band, y'all. New to me.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Between You, Me, and the Staten Island Ferry

One hell of an interview here. Great questions, great answers. Elton John is like a Mom, I'll bet.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

I Love Ya Honey ... But ...

Speaking of Rod (as we were), his new album was released this week. It's his first record of "original" material since 1995's SPANNER IN THE WORKS and follows a series of standards interpretations that sold like crazy while eroding nearly all his remaining coolness and contemporary relevance, which is one reason his lively biography was such a fun surprise.

The new album, called TIME, dovetails with his book a little too snugly. There's an autobiographical career-spanning number called "Can't Stop Me Now," in which he meets Maggie May; and "Brighton Beach" reflects on paying his dues as an R&B singing sideman in the early 1960s. A sappy breakup song, "It's Over," covers his despair at the crumbling of a marriage (like his to Rachel Hunter); and several cuts make reference to his "happy ending" current marriage to Penny Lancaster and all the gross, sober, healthy habits she's inspired in him. There's also some icky sexytime Rod ("Sexual Religion" and "Make Love to Me Tonight") and obligatory covers of Tom Waits ("Picture in a Frame") and Bob Dylan ("Corrina Corrina.")

As a "comeback" rock album, this is still way too adult contemporary, with songs that recall the Rod of old without actually being quite as good as them. The production is loaded with strings. Rod's voice is still there but it's a gentle kind of gruff. The thing about Rod in the old days was, he was such a terrific singer, other good musicians gravitated toward him. Jeff Beck, for example, was deathly serious about assembling a kickass group and probably chose his singer too well: He'd be humiliated when American audiences and critics mistook Rod for the group's namesake.

These artists (guitarists including Beck, Ron Wood, and Gary Grainger; drummers Mickey Waller and Carmine Appice, among many others) provided the background that brought Rod's emotional voice to life. Today, you've got longtime Stewart collaborator Jim Cregan, drummer Kenny Aronoff, and a billion cello players on TIME but the magic isn't quite there. Here's Rod then and now.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Who do you think you are? Rod Stewart!?

If there is a funnier or better-written rock-star autobiography out there I'd like to read it. Rod Stewart recounts his five-decade career with humor and forthrightness, never taking himself too seriously but coming off as genuine as you might expect a bazillionaire pop star whose access to supermodels and Lamborghinis far exceed what he'd otherwise deserve.

I've always loved Rod Stewart's voice, and chapters detailing how he paid his dues imitating his American soul idols like Sam Cooke alongside Long John Baldry in clubs where the Rolling Stones were also fighting to make a name for themselves are revealing. What comes through is an ambition is every bit as outstanding as his voice, culminating in an inspired period between the late 1960s and early 1970s where he fronted the Jeff Beck Group, then the Faces for their best moments, while at the same time recording some absolutely terrific solo albums that even today don't get the credit they are due.

Rod's weaknesses in songwriting -- it just never came easy for him -- and a propensity to give into fashion are addressed with humor and self-depreciating candor. He is not afraid to tell you about how he painstakingly dyes and fixes his hair and about indulging a geeky model-railroad hobby. Or the stomach-pumping episode. Or his love for soccer as a fan and participant. Or his well-deserved reputation for business savvy including a stint as a tax exile. Or the womanizing and drug use. Or, you know, the last 30 years of his career.

The model-chasing and love affair with his current wife takes up a little too much space near the end but boy is the rest a lot of  fun. I supplemented the read by streaming the Beck, Faces and early solo records with admiration, wonder and forgiveness. Rod Stewart is just great.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Who'd Have Thought?

Frank Turner is probably the first contemporary singer I met on the Internet.

Frank Turner at Brooklyn Bowl, August, 2010

2009's LOVE IRE & SONG popped up on my feed and I followed the album cover there, fell hard for the rollicking hooks and humor in "Reasons Not to Be An Idiot," Googled him, and as luck would have it within a week or so I was catching stage-divers at a performance of his in Brooklyn. He's a British guy, a former punk rocker whom, I suspect, was clever enough to realize the limits of the genre and also, the potential for tweaking it for a wider audience, unleashing a kind of "folk-punk" that aspires to combine the latter's energy with respect for the former's dignity. I think he's well aware this combination has legs but by all indications he's a real worker not leaving it to chance. His growing legion of fans is best represented by a gruesome gallery of 20-somethings with his lyrics tattooed onto them viewable at Frank's Facebook page, but I like to think he's also gathering in old Springsteen, Dylan and Billy Bragg fans like me (more likely, he'll usher the first group to the second, which to me is OK too). He knows who buys records and tickets.

What strikes me most about Turner? He's so aggressively un-ironic and direct he's practically a dork. Even Springsteen gave up on writing about the redemptive power of rock n' roll 30 years ago, but that's precisely what Turner does on the stirring "I Still Believe" from 2011's ENGLAND KEEP MY BONES. Just this week, the first single from Turner's forthcoming TAPE DECK HEART was released: Evidence from a few listens indicates that if anything he's only intensified the formula that's brought him this far: Soaring background vocals join a jaunty piano as Turner sings about acquiring some ambition in life.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

All-American Alien Boy

Ian Hunter is 73 years old, but came around at just the right time for me.

I'd been exploring his back catalog including the Mott stuff for a few months and had come to the general conclusion this was an artist who'd never gotten his proper due when a new album unexpectedly dropped in front of me this past fall. WHEN I'M PRESIDENT like much of his best stuff was wry and fun and had a real edge to it as well, both musically (it rocks) and lyrically (where it addresses American history of the recent and distant past). I especially liked the subtly angry title track and the slow-burning Ta Shunka Witco, a I'm-gonna-kick-your-ass song from the perspective of Crazy Horse ("You're gonna wish/You'd never been born/When you get to Little Bighorn").

Sunday at the City Winery, Hunter was helped along by a crack band and gave what I thought was a lively mix of the old and new. His voice, distinct but never a classic to begin with, has gone gruffer and scratchy with age. I felt he sang better while seated at the piano than when standing with an acoustic guitar, and his youngest son Jesse (looked in his late 20s?) came out to sing a few with him. His set included the classics you'd expect like "All the Way from Memphis" "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" and "Young Dudes" but he also mixed in "All-American Alien Boy" and "Now is the Time" which he dedicated to "the stupidest man in America," the NRA's Wayne LaPierre. My fantasy set would have included "Central Park n' West" and "Life After Death," but you buy your ticket and take your chances.

Was our first night at the Winery which is a civilized place to watch a show if kind of expensive. We sat opposite a couple of dog trainers from Alaska who were in town for the Westminster Dog Show and reminded me how great a city we live in.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Talking About Springsteen

Two authors whose latest works concerned Bruce Springsteen spoke at the local bookstore the other night.

Caryn Rose, who I knew first as fellow Mets fan and neighbor, read from RAISE YOUR HAND, a kind of rock n' roll travelogue about the experience of having followed Springsteen through five countries as he toured Europe last summer. She was joined by Marc Dolan, a professor at John Jay College and author of the new biography BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE PROMISE OF ROCK 'N' ROLL.

Rose's reading passage described a moment in Dublin when she and her companions realized they were in not for the typical Springsteen live fireworks but the kind of lengthy, thrilling spectacles upon which Bruce continues to build his legend. It's clear that Rose was energized by the opportunity to experience Springsteen perform before an audience that tended to be younger and livelier than what's become the typical American Springsteen crowd of "50-something white guys standing around waiting to hear 'Prove It'" as she described them. The implication is that Bruce returns the energy for the very same reasons.

Dolan's reading also concerned Springsteen's connection with his audience, only from a songwriting perspective, describing the artist's determination and precarious state of mind as the MAGIC album took shape. Dolan is particularly interested in Springsteen's evolution as an artist (perhaps, he's an anomaly among 50-something white male American Springsteen fans) and his point that Springsteen is to be admired for not bashing out the same formula for 40 years but continually struggling to connect was a good one, and not lost on me. I've been reconsidering the Springsteen of my youth for a few years now, and more recently I was unexpectedly stirred by WRECKING BALL's fury. His work is certainly worthy of exploration. I haven't read a Springsteen biography since Dave Marsh's valentine BORN TO RUN as a 14-year-old, but I guess it's time to begin again. I'm reminded also I haven't seen a Springsteen show in more than 20 years.

With two knowledgeable, enthusiastic and opinionated Springsteen fans on the same stage, the presentation in almost no time veered toward the arcane. Tom Morello's coming stint as Steve Van Zandt's replacement in the Australian leg of the tour turned into a nuanced discussion of the meaning of the various E Streeters. They talked about things they liked (David Sancious' contributions to "New York City Serenade") and what they didn't ("Waiting on a Sunny Day," Bruce's guarded self-image and propensity to be less-than-forthcoming in public remarks). I learned a few things (Springsteen wrestles with depression, had no idea); and humiliated myself by submitting near-blind guesses at an impossible 10-question trivia contest. I got four correct; the winner had 9 of 10. Nothing to it, Mister.

Monday, January 21, 2013

No Star is Too High

Even are a trio from Melbourne, Australia that I first came across while goofing off on the Internet. As with a lot of things in life, I've come to appreciate them a little late in the game.

To the extent Even had a heyday, it would have been in the late 1990s behind their first two albums, LESS IS MORE and COME AGAIN. They (rightly) gained attention for classic crafted melodies and harmonies (one musician, Tim Rogers of You Am I, called the latter "my favorite Beatles album,") and Rolling Stone named Even one of its "Hot Bands" of 1996. They specialize in 60s influenced guitar pop, often with a psychedelic or rootsy treatment. If not especially groundbreaking, they're well-written and performed songs that would appeal to fans of bands like the Smithereens.

Alas, the critical attention didn't get them very far and their sound had few contemporary practitioners, particularly after Oasis tanked. Today the band appears to be something of a side project for its members (singer/writer/guitarist Ash Naylor is a busy sideman) but still they plug away. I was sucked in the first time I heard "I am the Light" and liked 'em so much I sent away for this brilliantly designed tee-shirt (traveling by Australian Sea Mail, the package took 7 months to arrive to New York). Their most recent album is called IN ANOTHER TIME (officially out for a year now but only available to stream in the U.S. for a few weeks). It's a moody, psychedelic affair I've been wearing out, especially No Star.

Here are two more Even songs I think you'll probably like, "No Surprises" from COME AGAIN (1998) and the aforementioned "I am the Light" from Even's self-titled 2008's elpee.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

That Won't Happen to Us

By 1986, I'd already given up on Billy Joel. From my point of view it'd been pretty much downhill since The Stranger became a phenomenon, although I always had a soft spot for the live record Songs In The Attic, which highlighted his pre-Stranger material in lively arrangements. But by '86, Billy in my opinion had already gone soft, dating a famous supermodel, clawing to the contemporary on the strength of duets with 80s phenomena like Cyndi Lauper and, somehow, Ray Charles. Years later I'd similarly hate Billy Joel for trying to claim Shea Stadium as a part of his legacy despite my strong suspicions that he and most of his fans including the Long Island ones, are Yankee fans. They would approve of Cyndi Lapuer duets and 'Uptown Girl.' It didn't require any imagination.

But the DIMT is all about reconsideration. I'd been formulating a piece in praise of the TURNSTILES album but recently while filling the tank at a Wawa in Bel Air, Maryland, Joel's 1986 single 'A Matter of Trust' blasted across the gas bar. My reaction was not unlike the passerby in the below video. I'm pumping gas in January, trying to stay warm, and... godamnit, I'm dancing. Damn you Billy Joel.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Up All Night

Carol Miller spoke to me in bed. She worked the 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift at WPLJ in New York when that station was the only way I knew to grip onto what was new and cool in the world. 'PLJ ran a tight but lively "album-oriented rock" format that though lacking at the extremes provided a fairly well-rounded education in the basics from the British invasion to this New Wave thing before the format tightened still again and finally became a casualty of the "contemporary hits" format in June of 1983.

Writing in her new book UP ALL NIGHT, Miller reveals that she did not survive that format switch for long because the equity she'd built as a sultry-voiced, puberty-triggering, Zeppelin-blasting rocker all those nights couldn't translate to credible spins of Madonna and Lionel Richie. And so she washed up at PLJ's old rival WNEW (where she briefly was employed before her starmaking turn at PLJ) and rode those nighttime airwaves for another few decades. These days, she accompanies me on my night runs, still playing Led Zeppelin and Springsteen, still sexily baffled by reading the sports scores, on the banal but dependable WAXQ, New York's last rock n' roll station and the spiritual descendant of her former employers. Rock Lives, a little.

While the dust jacket promises salacious tales of torrid affairs with rock's elite, we learn Carol's not that kind of girl. The oldest daughter of a conservative Jewish family from Queens, she remained wide-eyed and naive despite the inevitable (but tame) encounters with the Paul Stanleys, Steven Tylers and Rod Stewarts of the world. Her marriage to MTV's Mark Goodman -- back then, a royal coupling -- was a disaster as she learns Goodman not only was cheating on her, but using her money to finance his affairs. What a dick! Carol in the meantime was dealing with the beginnings of what would become a lifelong battle with cancer that's required dozens of surgeries, and she battles still today. I had no idea.

While not particularly interesting from a musical standpoint, UP ALL NIGHT is best giving us a peek at the other side of the mic, and her story provides unexpected lessons in the value of perseverance, surviving not only the collapse of the radio and rock industries, but personal trauma too. I love her more than ever.