A Mild Winter’s Tale: 5 Essential Discs for 2012 (so far…)

Anyone who reads music periodicals has probably been privy to the overabundance of “Lists”. “Critics” have a fondness for rating (and raving about) their favorite fill-in-the-blank. Take for example High Fidelity‘s Rob Gordon who takes list making to an absurdist length by rating past breakups and revisiting the best and worst in his ongoing search to grow up, all the while learning how to make the perfect mixtape. Although an arguably endearing and amusing trait1, it’s also a neurotic (and benign) affliction that many of music-loving geeks cannot avoid.

Three months into 2012 and I find myself pleasantly wrestling with the question of which albums I like the best. The astute reader would easily retort with, “Well, it’s easy isn’t it? You either love a record instantly or you don’t, right?” At times, yes, but, then again, I find certain albums will slowly grow on you or just one day make sense. Growing up I never cared much for the Rolling Stones, something about the music didn’t really resonate with me. Then, in my early 20s, while sipping on an Old Style at the Beachwood2 the jukebox came to spinning out a soulful, bluesy rock song and I heard Mick’s strange, sultry voice intone “I want to be your beast of burden” and my whole perspective on the Stones changed. All of a sudden, I understood (a) what he was talking about and (b) how the Stones’ music seeped into people’s minds firing neural pleasure receptors, inspiring insight and recollection. Since then, I won’t relegate any record to the trash bin without giving it some time to reverberate in my consciousness. Thus, without further ado here is the first installment of a recurring list of albums which I believe deserve a good listen. Are these my “favorite records” of the year so far? Not necessarily. However, something in each record has struck me and I believe they will have a broad appeal or contain an emblematic or common musical motif I’m hearing.

  • The Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio – A difficult record to categorize because by its own admission it refuses simple tags such as hip-hop, rhythm and blues, rap, or jazz but blends elements of each into its unique tapestry of sound. Black Radio like the title suggests is an eclectic collection of songs and styles mostly associated with Black culture in the U.S., but it is also much more than that that, it is like a lost transmission from a not too distant past. Its closest analog would be the Neo-Soul sound or Soul Revival of the late 90s by artists such as Maxwell, Erykah Badu, or Lauryn Hill, who brought back the brilliant fusion of Jazz, R&B, and Soul music that embodied 70s musical production. A beautiful cross-pollination of chill musical styles, this album will serve as the perfect way to wind down the week or enjoy those pleasant spring nights to come. (I know that by using the “J” word (i.e., jazz) I’ve raised a number of cautious eyebrows but don’t let it scare you, jazz music underscores and inspires so much of the early hip-hop movement that you’ve probably been listening to jazz samples without knowing for years. Give it a listen; you’ll be pleasantly smiling by album’s end.)
  • Sleigh Bells, Reign of Terror – If I were selling this record like Tim Robbins in The Player, I’d say this record is like The Shangri-Las meets Black Sabbath. If you heard their fantastic single “Rill Rill” from a couple of years back, you will understand what I mean. While these guys (or guy and gal) can thrash like metal monsters, there is a 50/60s pop and doo-wop sensibility underscoring their rage. It’s fantastically, blaringly loud and precise bubble gum rock all at once. In other words, these guys are the Pop Rocks of indie rock.
  • Sharon Van Etten, Tramp – The more time passes the more I adore this record as I find it unfolding new layers of meaning. This is a brooding and emotionally raw record with beautiful and lush instrumentation. It recalls the sounds and feel of old favorites like Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See (somnambulistic southwestern guitars), Cat Power’s You Are Free (pensive folk rock) and PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (fierce, acerbic songwriting) – all records that catapulted the respective artists into Indie stardom. In addition, having watched Sharon perform earlier this year, I was struck by both her humility and how much she really connected and shared with the audience. She is a class act and this record is an engrossing listen.
  • Perfume Genius, Put Your Back N2 It – Yet another dark and haunting record; however, unlike Tramp, Put Your Back N2 It works in a far more delicate and stripped down environment. The two defining characteristics of this record are Mike Hadreas’ (aka Perfume Genius) voice, a cross between Nina Simone and Antony and The Johnsons, and his ability to play with the silences and the spaces between notes. The latter creates this pregnant tension throughout the entire record as the listener waits (at times in vain) for an eruption of sound, the moment of pop nirvana that we’ve come to expect. This is definitely a record that will take repeated and careful listening. Additionally, for fans of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, there is a striking resemblance to the music underscoring our glimpse into the strange Northwestern town Agent Dale Cooper chanced upon so many years ago. Diane, remember to remind people that Perfume Genius is playing Schuba’s next week.
  • Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself A new Andrew Bird record is a reason to get excited because for a brief moment in time we are able to take a trip into a magical, rural landscape with violins and whistles. What makes this Andrew Bird record more special (to me) than previous releases is its consistency and strength from start to finish. I’ve always found wonderful moments in his previous releases and certainly there are individual moments that are better in say The
    Mysterious Production of Eggs or Noble Beast but both of those records have moments during which I tuned out or wanted to skip forward (which is a lot more cumbersome when you are listening on vinyl). Also, this record finds Andrew Bird embracing and incorporating more American folk traditions as well as some Caribbean inspired percussion and rhythms – which definitely brings a smile to my face!

If you want to listen to these records via Spotify individually, simply click on the album title or to listen to all five click here.

In the next post, I’ll offer up my favorite individual tracks so far — hint they are likely all within one of the two playlists I’ve already posted.

Musica En Vivo: Concerts News…

  • This week in Chicago,
    • @Schuba’s: Lost in the Trees at Schubas (4/3)
    • @theMetro: Youth Lagoon and Porcelain Raft at Metro (4/4), Wild Flag(!!!) and Hospitality (4/5), and Lucero (4/7)
    • Attending the ones in Bold.
  • Do you think it’s dangerous to have Busby Berkley dreams? Not, I. In fact if only every songwriter had the depth and breadth of reference owned by one Stephen Merritt. If you’ve never seen the Magnetic Fields live, make sure not to miss them on their current tour in support of the fabulous Love at the Bottom of the Sea. If you are worried that they won’t play the “hits”, dispossess yourself of that notion, because there were plenty of tracks from 69 Love Songs, Get Lost, and The Charm of the Highway Strip. Particularly stirring were their renditions of “Grand Canyon”, “The Book of Love”, “No One Will Ever Love You” and “Busby Berkley Dreams”. I will say don’t expect to “rock out” to this show. It’s definitely a mellow evening (filled with plenty of banter about bunnies and unicorns), but you can dance like a whirling dervish if you like. I don’t think Stephen will mind. Well maybe… An additional highlight was the opportunity to hear Kelly Hogan’s exquisite voice concluding with a cover of “Papa Was A Rodeo”.
  • Come On Back New York City: All I have to say is I’m really glad that Jeff Tweedy didn’t go to NYC in search of the girl he thought he loved in “New Madrid” because Chicago is really lucky to have him and his band of merry music makers as our “house band.” Playing his annual benefit for a local school, Jeff Tweedy played thirty (!!!) songs picked by the audience spanning his entire songwriting career, a handful of Tupelo songs, a song from Wilco’s collaboration with Billy Bragg (which by the way is being reissued with new and previously unreleased materials, see here), a large number of Wilco songs (duh) and some solo stuff he’s written over the years (plus two very special covers). To me the highlight of the set was the collection of Uncle Tupelo songs he played, one of the most important and influential bands I will likely never get to see (even though all the members are still living). But, the TRUE highlight is Jeff Tweedy who is a great showman and a humble, pleasantly self-effacing artist. I marvel that despite all the critical success his band has achieved he doesn’t take any of the fanfare and adulation for granted. It is clear that he loves to play music and, more importantly, he loves playing for his fans. Now this last part isn’t very punk rock, or is it? Who cares, as a fan it’s wonderful and he and his band (Wilco) are phenomenal – a truly special band that every fan of music should see.

…and before I go:

  • Other stuff I’m currently listening to (I’ve yet to discuss) and really digging:
    • Odd Futures’ The OF Tape, Vol. 2
    • The Shins’ Point of Morrow
    • Julia Holter’s Ekstasis
    • Young Prisms’ In Between
  • If you need a good laugh, check out the crazy comedic clowns at Professor Blastoff (one of my favorite podcasts) discussing the subject of “Taste” – stay tuned for the piece de resistance where Kyle calls his mother to discuss whether he’d been breastfed (47 minutes in).

Goodbye to the lions, lambs, and Ides of March and hello April’s figurative showers3.


 1 If you’ve ever gone toe-to-toe with someone declaiming why their “band” is better than yours, you’ll understand.

2 Which is a pretty aptly named bar because it’s at the corner of Beach and Wood. Oh and they have a phenomenal jukebox…. when it’s actually working.

3 Because we’ve already got plenty of sprouting flowers.

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