Rants + Raves

Field Music’s latest unearths more pop gems

Brothers David and Peter Brewis (the core of Sunderland England’s Field Music) have channeled numerous disparate elements in concocting their brilliant 4th long-player, Plumb. Hints of Yes and Steely Dan (chief songwriter/vocalist David even sounds like a young Donald Fagen at times) appear, along with their continued channeling of XTC. However, this is made all the more listenable by amazing hooks that rival Guided by Voices in frequency and abrupt change.

Plumb builds on a legacy of songcraft that the unrivaled (well, maybe James Mercer of The Shins would be a contemporary) Field Music have been developing for over a decade (2010’s Measure – a double album – was arguably that year’s best pop record). Plumb clocks in at about 35 minutes – frustrating for those of us who want more of them, but perfect for our hurried times – indeed, the underlying theme of the lyrics, which address (in a whimsical way) frustrations with the daily commute, and the need to acquire more “useless shit” and treat people like fecal matter.

This album is definitely a “grower”, which should reward the patient and intelligent listener upon repeated spins.

Smells like:

 

The documentary on the short, but prolific life and musical career of Jay Reatard is playing now at little movie theaters across the country. We got to see Jay Reatard and his band at an in-store show at Jackpot Records in Portland shortly before his untimely death (murder). I’m glad we did, but it makes this footage all too sad. Reatard’s last record was a sign of greatness to come–fast and messy pop songs that had so much power and energy bundled-up in 2-3 minute little nuggets. Alas, what we have is what we get and Jay Reatard is no more. Except on the big screen.

Luz Elena Mendoza’s band, on Court the Storm, bring latin radiance to Portland pop

If you’ve already heard Y La Bamba (there’s a reasonable chance, what with all the positive – and well deserved – press they’re getting, including multiple plugs on NPR, where the album is currently streaming in its entirety), then this is old news. Their new record, Court the Spark (released by Portland’s Tender Loving Empire), is everything that is good about cultures clashing…lead singer Luz Elena Mendoza’s Mexico-via-California-and-Oregon roots clearly influencing an otherwise Americana take on pop.

But Y La Bamba is, in the best sense, a band. Mendoza’s bandmates contribute everything from solid musicianship, to rich vocal harmonies. And all the while, the mix is tasteful, striking and subtle at the same time – due in no small part to Portland-resident Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) and his long acquaintance (perhaps his creation of?) latin-tinged modern pop music. There’s even a little treat on the record with the inclusion of Americana vocal goddess Neko Case, a long time fan of the band.

There will be a record release party with the band at Music Millenium (which has a great background story on the Y La Bamba posted) on March 4th (at 3 pm) and a show at the Doug Fir on April 21st.

Smells Like:

Great live music dies, while studio zombies like Lana Del Rey “live”

My friends – please excuse me while I shake my cane – but I was listening to the radio this Sunday morning, when the deejay (a younger fellow) reminded me about the sad news that The Woods (perhaps Portland’s most unique – and likely best – music venue) is no more…

The intimate space played host to a slew of artists off the promotional and hype-driven radar. The deejay echoed as much, and talked about a particularly memorable show delivered by a shy musician from Colorado.

Smells Like Pop was able to enjoy the venue, as well – one of our more memorable shows was watching our friend, and London’s musical gem, Alessi’s Ark perform her magic there. It didn’t hurt that the venue was run by Ritchie Young of Portland band Loch Lomond. His sincerity and welcoming attitude helped make The Woods a special place. The fact that it was a former funeral home, with its unique atmosphere, and haunted sound, only added to its mystique.

But it is no more.

Perhaps with a sense of irony, the same radio station seconds later advertised a visit for a live performance from Lana Del Rey. Only time will tell if she has any staying power (or talent) – but she seems to represent everything that The Woods was not…ostentatiousness (the rumors of “enhanced” lips), hype (if you haven’t already heard about her, crawl out from under that rock!), wealth (her father is apparently a dot.com billionaire), studio-wizardry (Damon Albarn – Gorillaz, etc. – is rumored to be working with her), glamour (her name was “inspired” by hanging out in Miami with friends) – a symbolic nod to our culture’s severe ADD, as much was made from her SNL appearance after all of ONE decent song to her credit.

The same local radio station will be hosting a live session from The Shins’ James Mercer – who at least has a few albums under his belt.

The Shins (with a new lineup) also have an album (Port of Morrow) due out in March (so do the Magnetic Fields, Love at the Bottom of the Sea ); Field Music has a new album (Plumb) due out in early February, the Dirty Projectors have a new one due in spring, and Outkast has something coming out this year.

In the meantime, you might find me listening to music in the woods (you know, with real trees, plants, and stuff).

I’ve only been listening to my favorite album of the year for the past few weeks. While I had heard good things about it since its release in April, I had consciously avoided the album. Chalk it up to aNoYaNcE with C A P I T A L I Z A T I O N. When I finally took a listen, I knew immediately it would rise to the top of my list. In a year when many releases had a familiar pop alternative tameness (with a large dose of folk from northwest bands), W H O K I L L sounds like nothing else released this year, at least in the States. With its upbeat African sensibility, quirky vocals, and stray jazz riffs, the album has a level of risk so often avoided this year by other bands. And it pays off.

tUnEyArDs is primarily Merrill Garbus, a looping machine, ukelele, drums, and sax. The first song, “My Country,” establishes her cred. “My country ’tis of thee,” she sings, but with its springy beat and vocal style echoing something like the Mahotella Queens, it sounds like she could be referring to South Africa or Mali. For a further disconnect, the sunny style evident in this song and others is belied by a clear stream of protest running beneath. This is most evident in the later song “Doorstep,” about a police shooting.  Toward the middle of the album, in “Gangsta” Garbus unleashes a driving edginess from some third world street in the slums of Rio (or Detroit) that could be straight out of the movie “City of God.” Violence is a recurring theme in the work, and she reveals some swagger, like MIA but without the Tamil Tiger gunplay. In her concluding song “Killa,” the most self-referential and perhaps the weakest song of the bunch, she declares herself a “new kind of woman” whose violence is constrained by her music.

If you want to see a great demonstration of the construction of this album, and of live looping itself, tUnEyArDs’ performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts (or the video from KEXP above) serves well. One note, however. Perhaps the biggest disconnect with tUnEyArDs is Garbus herself. With all the worldliness of her album, it may come as a bit of surprise that it emanates from a young white woman with a side mullet, looking like she stepped straight off of a liberal arts campus somewhere. To me, this makes the album all the more remarkable, its musical genius in its ability to transport the listener elsewhere.

Smells Like:

You be (Kim Jong) illin’! Though this pirate is dead, the CD aint, yet…with a couple of exceptions, I actually purchased a physical copy of my favorite albums of the year.

  • Wye Oak – Civilian
  • Kate Bush50 Words for Snow
  • St. VincentStrange Mercy
  • Peggy Sue – Acrobats
  • Destroyer – Kaputt
  • The WeekndHouse of Balloons
  • Atlas Sound – Parallax
  • Alessi’s ArkTime Travel
  • The AntlersBurst Apart
  • Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues
  • WireRed Barked Tree

Honorable mentions: The Roots – Undun, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical, Tom Waits – Bad as Me, Tuneyards – Whokill, The Decemberists – The King is Dead, Toro Y Moi – Underneath the Pine, Chad Vangaalen – Diaper Island, Cass McCombs,- Wit’s End, Radiohead – King of LImbs, Stephen Malkmus – Mirror Traffic, EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints, Real Estate – Days

Too busy to write a full in-depth post, but hopefully I will circle back soon and flesh this out more! Without any further ado, here are my favorite 11 albums of 2011:

  • PJ HarveyLet England Shake
  • St. Vincent Strange Mercy
  • Clap Your Hands Say YeahHysterical
  • Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Mirror Traffic
  • Wire Red Barked Tree
  • DestroyerKaput
  • Tom WaitsBad as Me
  • Alessi’s ArkTime Travel
  • Girls Record 3
  • TuneYardsWho Kill
  • EMAPast Life Martyred Saints

Honorable mentions: Atlas Sound – Parallax // Wild Flag – s/t // Danger Mouse & Daniel Luppi – Rome // Fucked-Up – David Comes to Life // Yuck – s/t // Toro y Moi – Underneath the Pine // Radiohead – King of Limbs //  M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming // Iceage – New Brigade // Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 // The Weeknd – House of Balloons // Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts

We’re busy working on our Best Albums of 2011 lists, and as a preview of sorts, I thought I’d share my favorite songs of the year. Notice I didn’t say “best songs” and in some cases, these bands aren’t even close to being on my top album list. But, these are my poppy, hook-laden favorites (in no particular order)…

 

The neo-retro AM-pop-sincere-yet-tongue-in-cheek duo of She & Him have put out out a Christmas record and that makes perfect sense. Especially when the album sounds like it was transported from the late 60’s/early 70’s sonic landscape where Doris Day or Jim Neighbors would feel right at home. The songs of She & Him are not just wry retro-updates though, they bring a modern sensibility that keeps the songs grounded in the twenty-tens (the future!). And on their new album, A Very She & Him Christmas the songs work much the same way.

The lackadaisical vocal delivery of Zooey Deschanel works nicely on many songs, like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but album opener, The Christmas Waltz sounds almost like an outtake from “Elf”, especially with the minimal instrumentation. Things finally start to roll when M. Ward takes over the lead vocals with Deschanel on harmony on Christmas Wish. The song sounds more complete and satisfying, heck it even has bass and drums!

The whole affair is pleasant enough–you almost get the feeling that you’re at an intimate Hollywood party, where Deschanel (the real movie and TV actress) is cajoled into singing around the fire, and “hey look, Ward brought his guitar!” Sleigh Ride and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree even manage to sound peppy as the party moves on into the night. Then, Silver Bells brings the affair back down again with echo-laden vocals accompanied by a ukelele. I have many versions of Baby It’s Cold Outside, and this one fares fairly well with the classics. The duo even manages to make it their own, but any sexual innuendo from earlier versions is stripped away, leaving a jaunty, whistling sing-along. But, I’ll take the Dean Martin version, thank you. Elvis’ Blue Christmas is tough to top, but She & Him do their best, and the intimacy really works here. You can almost imagine you’re at that Hollywood Holiday party … “No more egg nog–I’ll simply burst!”

Little Saint Nick is harmless fun, and they close with the Christmas Song which really brings me back to the classic Holiday Records. So, how does this album work in the Holiday playlist? At our house we mostly listen to holiday tunes on shuffle, mixing genres and time-periods at random, so I think this record will fit in just nicely.

There’s maybe no other musician that can match Tom Waits’ unparalleled track record. Album by album, and yes, track by track he’s been one of the most consistent artists over the last 30+ years. So, it’s easy to take each new recording for granted – when you first put a new Waits’ album on you just know it’s going to be good. But, damn if his recent records don’t keep getting better and better as he refines his sound and craft.

Strange or maybe not so strange, Tom Waits has seldom had any “hits”. At his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past Spring, he dead-panned, “They say I have no hits and that I’m difficult to work with … like it’s a bad thing.” Records by Waits are best experienced as a whole, where you can be transported to a place out of time, neither really old or very new – a landscape of dreams. Sad dreams, yes and many nightmares, but overall a world completely and uniquely his own.

So how does he keep making such great, timeless records? It helps to surround yourself with incredible musicians. Tom Waits has a knack for putting together stellar bands to play on his albums, and Bad As Me, his first record of new songs in six years is no exception. Keith Richards plays for the first time since 199X’s Bone Machine (Richards also played on Rain Dogs) along with long-time Wait’s collaborator Mark Ribot, Los Lobos’ David Hildago, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Augie Meyers (the organist from the Sir Douglas Quintet!). All of these players have learned how to work with space and casually (seemingly sloppily) play in-and-around each other without knocking anyone else out of the way. Keith Richards even adds ragged backing vocals to Last Leaf on the Tree, a slow and delicate ballad of regret and resiliency.

When you’re creating classic albums, it also helps to have a great songwriter to work with, and Waits has once again written the songs with his long-time foil and partner, Kathleen Brennan. The yin and yang of the two have, I think, elevated Waits’ songs to a higher ground, resulting in more timeless, grounded and artful albums as a whole. Not many people can work this closely with their spouses or partners, but in this case, the results are magical.

Not every song works for me, especially “Hell Broke Luce” which while an interesting song, feels a little gimmicky and breaks the mood of an otherwise stellar album.

Not everyone “gets” Tom Waits, dismissing his music as too noisy and gruff or maybe too traditional sounding. If the naysayer can get past their initial biases, they’ll be rewarded with an almost cinematic album of dense, complex songs and dream-like stories.

Smells Like:

DBD Design PDX