Monday, December 31, 2007

Best Albums of 2007

Everyone is pretty sick of these lists by now, but I had to throw my two cents in like everyone else. So take a quick glance, and post a comment about how I’m obviously deaf and perhaps mildly retarded. Making this, I was expecting to go on a diatribe about how bad a year ’07 was for music, but I realized there were actually plenty of albums I liked. Some of my favorites disappointed (looking at you White Stripes), and many of the blog flavor-of-the-months didn’t hold up to the hype (sorry Arcade Fire). However, there’s a nice mix of great stuff below from both newbies and veterans. Enjoy, and happy new year!

HONORABLE MENTIONS (because I couldn’t not mention them): Steve Earle – Washington Square Serenade; Joe Henry – Civilians; The National – Boxer; Robert Plant & Alison Kraus – Raising Sand; Mavis Staples – We’ll Never Turn Around; Tegan and Sara – The Con; Various Artists - I’m Not There Original Soundtrack.

#10: Mark Knopfler – Kill to Get Crimson
I’ve been a Dire Straits fan forever, but have never investigated much into Knopfler’s solo output. Picking this one up on a whim, I might need to check him out more. Though it couldn’t be more different from the Straits. Where they were funky and rocking, this disc is stately and subdued, with half the songs being nylon-stringed waltzes that sounds straight out of Victorian England. Only on “Punish the Monkey” does he indulge his fuzz-box solo inclinations a bit.
Sample track: Behind With the Rent

#9: Buck 65 – Situation
The best Canadian rapper since…yeah right, like you can name another Canadian rapper. He’s been running around the underground for years, building a cult following with his hip-hop incorporations of everything from folk to blues. He goes back to basics a bit on this one though, eschewing samples for rough production and sloppy drums (though that was more out of fear of getting sued than anything; apparently there’s an “original” version circulating with the samples).
Sample track: 1957

#8: Patti Smith – Twelve
Always a cover artist extraordinaire (see her re-working of Gloria), she finally flexes her interpretive muscles on this all-covers disc. Taking on everyone from Dylan to Tears for Fears, she uses her nasal drawl to drive the lyrics home. Arrangements veer from the faithful (White Rabbit) to the wildly inventive (Smells Like Teen Spirit), but she hits gold in each case. The cover album is a genre with twenty stinkers for every gem, but no one should be surprised for Patti to find the diamond in the rust. Hey, there’s a song she could do…
Sample track: Smells Like Teen Spirit

#7: Anberlin – Cities
Hard-driving rock often falls into the trap of being loud but unmemorable, but the boys of Anberlin put poetic lyrics being tight instrumentation in melodies that will hit you hard and leave you singing the refrains long after they end. Not a departure from previous albums, but the sign of all their promise coming to fruition. The nine-minute long closing “(*Fin)” has enough to justify an EP all by itself.
Sample track: A Whisper & A Clamor

#6: Beirut – The Flying Club Cup
Listening to the album, you picture a group of world-weary Eastern Europeans vagabonds playing this enchanting music, not some kid from Santa Fe. Regardless, though, these offbeat folk melodies use instruments from french horn to melodica (look it up) to wrap around you. World music has never been so close to home.
Sample track: La Banlieu

#5: Die Ärzte – Jazz Ist Anders
With foreign language albums, it’s hard to know how much someone who doesn’t speak the language will appreciate the music. Though I know a little German, I haven’t paid much attention to the lyrics, and love it all the same. These Berlin punks, the self-described “beste Band der Welt” (best band in the world), have been around for twenty years though singing about everything from spanking to social consciousness. They lean a little more towards maturity on this one, without leaving behind familiar themes, as in Licht Am Ende Des Sarges (Light at the End of the Coffin). The production is spot-on, leaving the power chords crisp and tight as they crib from everyone from The Cars to Barry Manilow. My favorite track, however, is the softest one with light guitar and bittersweet backing vocals, Nur Einen Kuss (Only a Kiss).
Sample track: Nur Einen Kuss

#4: Bruce Springsteen – Magic
I was a little taken aback first hearing this as, after several decades of glorious experimentation with new bands, solo material, and back-porch revival music, Springsteen has made what sounds like a stereotypical Boss album in every way. There’s one difference though, the political anger that comes through in every song. He never names names, but the metaphors of a “Long Walk Home” and unnamed soliders coming home aren’t too subtle to hit home.
Sample track: I’ll Work For Your Love

#3: Kanye West – Graduation
West finally lives up to his bravado. He may be a cocky son of a bitch, but when he claims he’s the best rapper in the world, at least he’s right. He’s not especially fast, not particularly clever, but every song is a knock-out for the way the words sound, rolling over each other atop flawless production and perfect samples. I hate to push such a mainstream choice, but there’s no way “Stronger” is not the song of the year.
Sample track: Homecoming (ft. Chris Martin)

#2: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Some Loud Thunder
The blog darlings of ’05, that album was did not live up to all the hype. They prove themselves worthy of the indie admiration on this year’s follow-up, however, confounding listeners with distorted-beyond-recognition vocals and thrashing and twitching guitars in one fascination (not to mention catchy) track after the next. Listening to it with the lyrics in front of you helps a great deal, as you won’t make out a one otherwise, but they’re great in a very abstract sort of way.
Sample track: Emily Jean Stock

#1: Gogol Bordello – Super Taranta!
Taking Eastern European music in just the opposite direction from Beirut, these gypsy-punks bring the party worldwide as they blast forth with accordion, violin, and one of the wildest frontmen music has seen in a while. Their live shows have achieved legendary status, but the music is worth the energy. The description of their music as “the Clash having a fight with the Pogues in Easter Europe” fits nicely, provided all involved were on speed.
Sample track: American Wedding

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Rodrigo y Gabriela in Glasgow 12/11/07

Next up in today’s concert twofer is the acoustic latin-metal duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. These guys have been making a lot of noise this year promoting their self-titled album at every festival the summer season has to offer, and wowing at every stop. Having missed them at Bonnaroo myself, I made up for it at a stop at Glasgow’s Barrowlands.

Unannounced, at least as far as I’d seen on the ticket or the website, David Ford opened the show in memorable fashion. He came on with one woman and about a dozen instruments, and proceeded to loop his way through the opening song. He started out shaking maracas, recording that and looping it over and over as he played a simple piano riff a couple times, adding that loop on top. Loop after loop was added, with him doing four-part harmonies with himself, as he sang overtop. The woman did the same thing on her violin throughout the song, so that the two people ended up with a cacophony of virtual instruments by the song’s end. He only did this for about half his songs, but creatively enough that it became more than a gimmick.

The songs he did not use the loops for, but just performed solo on piano or acoustic guitar, were distinctly less memorable. “Poetic” lyrics came off as pretentious, as he tried to create a more modern Tom Waits vibe without the weirdness. The exception to the rule was his State of the Union, a political song more about general necessities of the political sphere than any specifics o
f today, but featured the memorable lines “With friends like these, well who needs politicians?” and “Come on Jesus Christ, come back, all is forgiven.” Given that he’s from East Sussex, it’s unclear whether he’s talking about America, Britain, both, or neither. It works for all of the above.

It’s hard to describe Rodrigo y Gabriela. There have been a lot of catchy phrases tossed around, like latin-metal, flamenco-funk, or acoustic-thrash, but none of them really get at the heart of the duo. It’s simply two people from Mexico playing instrumentals on nylon-stringed guitars that somehow makes you feel like you’re at a Metallica concert.

Taking to the stage, they exuded a poise and humility that contrasted with the flashing and swooping lights, loud opening music, and wild visuals behind them. Throughout the show close-up videos of their hands playing were taken by two tiny remote-controlled cameras by each of them and broadcast on the screen behind them. Being able to seeing their flying fingers, especially Gabriela’s blur of a hand strumming and thumping her furious rhythm guitar, but the camera delay just couldn’t keep up with the speed at which they were playing. Regardless though, the many visuals helped keep a show that I thought would get boring – two people sitting on chairs playing guitar – engaging up to the last minute.

The main credit for that, however, goes to the duo themselves. Through incredible playing and medleys very different than their albums, they kept the audience focused by guessing what they would do next. A setlist would be difficult to figure no matter how familiar one was with the word-free songs, because of how the different melody lines would weave in and out of each other, throwing in snatches of unrecorded songs and unexpected covers, like Seven Nation Army, Smoke on the Water, the James Bond theme song, and, I think, Norwegian Wood. It was only towards the end that they began to mix things up and move around, as one or the other took a well-deserved break. Rodrigo turned out to be a dynamic frontman in the few instances he used it, strutting the stage while playing and organizing the crowd into a three-part cheer to lead into their cover of Metallica’s Orion. A little more opportunity to express this charisma would benefit the show, though perhaps overshadow Gabriela’s quieter demeanor.

A live highlight in each show is a crowd singalong of Wish You Were Here but, as they’re not actually doing much on guitar for it, it is much less impressive than their Stairway to Heaven (especially appropriate, being as it was a week before Led Zeppelin’s London reunion gig). It’s a song I can’t stand the original of, but once the pretentious lyrics and Plant’s crooning screeches are out of the picture, emerges as a nice tune that builds to a rocked-out frenzy.

Download a live show from 7/4/07 in Chicago:

Saturday, December 22, 2007

We Are Scientists in Edinburgh 11/7/07

Over the last few months I've seen a few concerts that I never got a chance to review, so I'll just shove 'em together in summaries. And I'll throw in some audio recordings to sweeten the deal.

First up, my favorite new band of 2006, We Are Scientists. Their hook-filled brand of rock'n'roll is refreshing in a world of shoegazing, strange instruments, and angst. I hadn't had a chance to see them, but they took a night off from their tour supporting the Kaiser Chiefs for a headlining gig at the Potterrow Student Center at University of Edinburgh, November 6th.

They had two openers, Kid Harpoon and The Departure, one of which almost stole the show. Kid Harpoon looked like a dock waif in ripped leather jacket and mullet, bouncing around with his acoustic guitar in front of a five-piece band. He joked at one point that most of his songs were about killing girls, which was pretty accurate, most of his lyrics being Decemberists-esq accounts of antique times and values. Closing with a cover of First We Take Manhattan on speed (see here for a recording), his twenty-minute set quickly convinced the small crowd that this misfit was worth keeping an eye on.

The Departure were as generically loud and angsty as a group could be, with no one moving on stage and everyone moving in the audience…by walking away. A well-named band, as everyone was glad when they did just that, departed.

The crowd somehow tripled in size in the twenty minutes before We Are Scientists came on. When they did, the three-piece had turned into a four-piece, with an extra member named Max on keyboards and guitar. He was all but worthless, as his instruments were never audible and, if they had been, I still can’t imagine what they would have added. Part of the allure of the band is the stripped-down raw sound that adding more instruments will just clutter. The other line-up change was a recently added replacement drummer. He looked dorky and confused the whole time…so he fit perfectly.

They kicked right into their hit (small hit) and my favorite song, Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt and followed with ninety minutes of relentless rock’n’roll. The between-song comedy banter they are known for was at a minimum, but the fun they were clearly having was not. It’s generally not considered “cool” for rock bands to go around grinning, but their happiness was infectious.

Having only one official album (plus a b-sides set that they ignored), they played most of its songs with plenty of room for new stuff. All the new material, the titles I can only guess at, stood up proudly next to the old stuff, to the point that by the end of the songs people were singing along. Most featured absurdly catchy choruses, “woah-oh-ohs” aplenty, and the guitar thrashing of lead singer Keith Murray. As a side note, this show also marks the first time I’ve seen a crowd sing along to a guitar riff, on The Great Escape.

Nobody Move, Nobody Gets Hurt
The Scene Is Dead
NEW SONG (Impatience)
NEW SONG (Let's See It)
Can't Lose
NEW SONG (Altered Beast)
It's a Hit
Worth the Wait
NEW SONG (Tonight)
Lousy Reputation
NEW SONG (After Hours)
The Great Escape
NEW SONG (Dinosaur)

Download a soundboard recording from a set on 12/12/07