Tuesday, December 29, 2009

9 Favorites for '09

End of the year. Time to take stock and to stock up on prescriptions before the old health insurance, or what's left of it, rolls over.

As such, each member of After Hours' fortified stable of writers and music lovers has been tasked with coming up with three favorite albums from the past year. Not necessarily the best - just the works of art that turned our earbuds into conduits to something better. Here are their reports.

My dirty little secret (well, it's not actually dirty, and it's about to be not secret, but it is little) is that I don't like making Best Of album lists. Never have, even a zillion years ago, when I made my living as a music critic.

It most assuredly would be boring and pretentious to explain why I have philosophical difficulty drafting Top Ten lists--but it seems 70% less difficult to comply with the request from After Hours impresario Marty to submit three favorite albums of the year.

Especially once I decided that I'd zero in on albums that not only were faves, but also meant something to me personally in a direct, powerful way that transcended the collection itself. So while I nod in agreement with lists that cite Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, Monsters Of Folk, Neko Case, the Avett Brothers and others, here's my Three:

7 Worlds Collide - The Sun Came Out. This two-disc set fairly bursts with the joys of music making, the buzz of collaborating--of course, I'd be pretty buzzed, too, if I were collaborating with the likes of Neil Finn, Radiohead's Phil Selway & Ed O'Brien, Johnny Marr, most of Wilco, Lisa Germano and others--and the thrill of artists discovering or developing new gifts, like the surprising emergence of drummer Selway as an outstanding singer-songwriter. Plus, I did a radio interview about The Sun Came Out with Neil Finn, the project's visionary and artistic guiding light, and a musical hero of mine for 30 years.

Too Blue” by 7 Worlds Collide (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)

EELS - Hombre Lobo. When everyone in 2009 seemed in the throes of vampire madness, EELS singer-songwriter E gave voice here to a werewolf by way of concocting a suite of songs about desire, mostly of the romantic variety, written from an array of perspectives--and placed in a characteristicly broad range of musical settings, E's vocals traveling from a whisper ("In My Dreams," one of my fave songs of the year) to a scream ("Tremendous Dynamite"). There's a cadre of folks who feel E is a profoundly talented rock auteur--folks with names like Townshend and Waits, as well as schlubs like me. (And prolific: "End Times"--the follow-up to "Hombre," released in June--arrives Jan. 19!) So it was extra thrilling to interview him on the radio, in a discussion framed around animal ideas on "Talking Animals."

In My Dreams” by EELS (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)

Tom Waits - Glitter And Doom Live. Speaking of Waits, he recently released the third live set of his career, and while live albums rarely make year-end Top Ten--or Top Three--lists, Glitter And Doom Live is in its own category. I mean, for one thing, it's Tom Freakin' Waits! For another, the double set represents an inspired trip through Waits' latter-day catalog, rendered by his crack squad of musical magicians (and one disc collects the shaggy dog stories, warped commentary and improbable "facts" he unspools while alone at the piano). And, no, I did not interview Waits on the radio (see above: it's Tom Freakin' Waits!) but I did attend one of these shows--in Jacksonville, FL--and the boozy, unruly audience notwithstanding, it was an enchanting, exhilarating evening.

Get Behind The Mule” by Tom Waits (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)

Eminem - Relapse. Eminem disappeared from the music world for four years and with good reason. He was in rehab getting off sleeping medication. Really, I’m just glad one of the rap kings is back in the studio. He is a little shaky, falling back on the tried and true of Slim Shady, but he does do some great stuff on this album. Most notably “Beautiful,” a great thoughtful song. Relapse may not be his best, but it’s a sure sign he’s back, and that’s good news.

Beautiful” by Eminem (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)

Weezer - Raditude. After Weezer disappointed me with the Red Album, they shocked me with their best album since The Green Album. Raditude lives up to the name, feeling like the soundtrack of a particularly quirky date movie. Weezer fans may still be disappointed, wanting the days of Pinkerton back, but I’m perfectly happy with a nice happy album.

Super Mash Bros.- All About The Scrillions. Last year, Girl Talk was in a bunch top tens and spawned countless imitators. One of those imitators was the Super Mash Bros. who are, arguably, better DJs than Girl Talk. They have the magic ability to make any combination gold. You’ll hear classics like “Axel F” combined with new songs like “Hustlin.” Even if you hate the songs themselves, they have the ability to make songs I hated great, like “I Kissed A Girl.” The whole album is great and a friendly price of free.

Still Bleeding” by Super Mash Brothers (mp3)(lazerwolf)

The Avett Brothers - I And Love And You. From its bluegrass heart, a piano pop outfit has emerged. Guided by uberproducer Rick Rubin, The Avett Brothers unleashed an extremely sad pop album stuffed full of hooks. Beneath its sweet veneer, the album dwells in the loneliest corner of your heart. I play it constantly and never tire. My favorite of the year by far.

The Duckworth Lewis Method - The Duckworth Lewis Method. Eccentric British chamber pop about a quirky British sport. What's not to love? This ode to the intricacies of cricket from The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon continues to enthrall. It is such a devotion to one topic that one is surprised the Ry Cooder didn't produce. The album is a fine brandy to be enjoyed deeply and with focus.

Gentlemen and Players” by The Duckworth Lewis Method (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)

The Beatles - Revolver (Remastered). Not necessarily a fair pick as it was released some 43 year ago. However, Revolver's remastering this year - and the remastering of the entire catalogue - was long overdue. The results were stunning. This grand reintroduction shows how much of today's music is still following the four lads from Liverpool.

Taxman” by The Beatles (mp3)(Amazon)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Three Albums You’ve (Probably) Never Heard, But Really Should

By Ian Minor

Lets not beat around the bush, no one can listen to every album, but fear not.
I’m here to offer you three albums not many people have heard of.

Voltaire - To The Bottom Of The Sea

Voltaire is best described as a gothic classical musician. He plays the violin, accordion and acoustic guitar. His most recent album was a concept album of a collection of sea songs and shanties. He hits several songs out of the park, most notably “Accordion Player,” the tale of a musician who refuses to go to war. Also the title song, which is about the sad, slow sinking of a ship. As Marty described it, “it’s quirky as hell.”

Accordion Player” by Voltaire (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)

That Handsome Devil - A City Dressed In Dynamite

Combining rockabilly and blues, That Handsome Devil knows how to make some great songs to bob your head to by using a wide array of instruments and old movie clips. Godforbid’s voice is excellent (yes that is his name) and the bass lines are impressive. The highlights are “Rob The Prez-O-Dent”, which is their biggest hit after getting on Rock Band 2, and “Squares” a fast-paced lounge song.

Rob the Prez-O-Dent” by That Handsome Devil (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)

A punk/goth band, because no one in this myspace generation can be just one genre, that hits fast and hard. To me, they are one of the last bands that still subscribes to the old punk gospel of destruction and anarchy. This album is rude, disturbing and rocking and it’s frontman is nicknamed Jimmy Urine. You can tell they care about nothing else except having a good time. The highlights are “Never Wanted To Dance” a surprisingly good dance song, and “Get It Up” a song which is about exactly what you think it is.

Get It Up” by Mindless Self Indulgence (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Heading Out with The Avett Brothers

It has been said that there are only two stories - a stranger comes to town and someone goes on a journey.

With The Avett Brothers' major label debut, I and Love and You, the boys take the latter. Actually, there are multiple journeys. The engaging album mines the familiar territory of documenting the journeys contained in romance and relationships. A topic that takes full use of the brothers' harmonies and orchestrations.

But, there is more going on here.

The album also represents the band's current journey from its North Carolina roots to a much wider audience. From its bluegrass beginnings to its new mixture of pop/alternative folk. To put it simply, less banjo, more piano and strings. And the piano is not a rootsy Garth Hudson, but more like fellow Tar Heel Ben Folds' hard-driving piano.

However, there is still a trace of the band's bluegrass background. The disc's second track, January Wedding, is a beautiful banjo stroll. But make no mistake, The Avett Brothers are no longer a bluegrass band.

A large part of this musical advancement coincides with the group's jump to Sony and the accompanying Rick Rubin production. The album is, at times, beautiful. The harmonies soar. The strings rise and fall. There is definitively a sheen with this bunch. Not much of the grittiness that helps define other hirsute harmony fanatics, such as Fleet Foxes and Blitzen Trapper.

That is not a complaint. The album has been on a steady rotation in my house for weeks and it will be there awhile.

Perhaps the best song of the album, or even in the group's burgeoning career, is the opening title track - an anthem about "heading north" (another journey!) and out into the world. The chorus is impossible to resist. Nor do you want to.

The Avett Brothers head out on the road at the beginning of the year. No Florida dates yet.

I and Love and You” by The Avett Brothers (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Nightlight Who Watches Over You

By Ian Minor

20 years ago an album came out that would later be called “a landmark release in the evolution from college rock to alternative.” The third release of rock group They Might Be Giants, Flood would give them their big hits and fame worldwide. It would also be the immortal and ever important first album for me.

It’s a little shocking that my first album came out a full two years before I was born. I first heard They Might Be Giants of a mix tape (remember those) that my uncle made. I believe the first song I heard was their mega hit Birdhouse in Your Soul. It’s hard to describe their impact they’ve had on me. It would be like describing the times before one learns to walk. There is no before TMBG, only after.

I do remember not understanding why their lyrics were so captivating, so compelling and heartfelt when they really said nothing. One lyric read “I came back as a bag of groceries accidently taken off the shelf before the date stamped on myself.” Trying to understand that is hard for a young adult like myself, so I imagine it broke my brain when I was twelve.

That’s why I think They Might Be Giants, they don’t have to worry about their message staying current. Because their is no message. Their music is timeless, which is helped that the two Johns have not aged since the mid-90s.

I went to a show of theirs not to long ago and it’s refreshing to see that no matter how giant they get, they’ll still joke and talk to the audience. True, they may be Grammy winners, but they’re not scared to bust out the sock puppets if they need to. Watching them preform one of the lesser known Flood songs, I was transported back in time, to a small club, where they had just released the album. Where they were just the musicians who had always been there for me, not stars, not one hit wonders, they were just my first band.

And it was pretty awesome.

Women & Men” by They Might Be Giants (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)

Friday, October 23, 2009

"Corn Flakes": Food For Thought About Rock Criticism And The Music's Preeminent Figures

By Duncan Strauss

"Corn Flakes With John Lennon And Other Tales From A Rock 'N' Roll Life," the new book by Robert Hilburn -- who spent more than 35 years at the Los Angeles Times, most of those as chief pop music critic -- manages to at once be a breezy, fun, fascinating read while prompting me to view rock criticism in a whole new light.

Which is really saying something, considering I dispensed rock criticism myself for many years, including a decade-long stint in the 80s at
The Times under Hilburn's auspices. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

"Corn Flakes" is nominally a
memoir. We learn a bit about his formative years (and his budding passion for music), we learn about a bit about his family -- fleeting mentions of his kids, brief references to the obsession with work and the attendant demands of being out nightly and frequent travel that helped crumple his first marriage -- and we learn a bit about how a non-smoking teetotaler functioned in a world often partly defined by personal excess and self-destruction.

But you only have to travel a handful of pages into this book before it becomes apparent Bob Hilburn isn't really interested in talking about Bob Hilburn. But he does want to talk, expansively, about another Bob -- Dylan.

From the way he scribbled out a setlist in Israel that Dylan used in a concert there, to the way he had often rejected Hilburn's interview requests, to the way -- in the twilight of Hilburn's career at
The Times--he agreed to sit for extensive interviews in 2003 about his songwriting process across the arc of his career, a sprawling and revealing piece called "legendary" by Mojo magazine, and the initial installment in a wildly ambitious songwriting series that, Hilburn notes, helped him win a Times award and his third Pulitzer nomination.

But Dylan represents just one of the preeminent pop music figures that forms the core of "Corn Flakes." It's chock full of wonderful stories about Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Johnny Cash (among the great photos included here is one of Cash at Folsom Prison in '68, standing next to Hilburn, who's clad in a dark business suit and tie), Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, Chuck D, Jack White, et al.

The book also offers a handful of nifty sidebar-like elements, like "My Rock 'N'' Roll Dinner Party Guest List," "Some Favorite Quotes," "Favorite Road Trips" and the like. It's an unusual book, by a writer-critic with an unusually long tenure at a publication, and unusual access to rock's most important, influential artists.

The book sports an introduction by Bono that makes it clear he admires, if not adores, Hilburn, including the phrase "He made us better." Both that introduction and various parts of Hilburn's narrative indicates there were numerous encounters with Bono/U2 over the years, starting with Bob's momentous review of the Irish band's L.A. concert debut that ran on the front page of
The Times' Calendar section in March of 1981.

But it's equally clear that the interviews Hilburn conducted with Bono (and sometimes, his bandmates)--and the informal, sometimes off-the-record conversations--with the Irishman had the most profound impact, probably on
Times readers, but certainly on Mr. Hewson and the rest of U2.

A notable example: In the wake of the explosive success of "The Joshua Tree," and the fervently mixed response to the "Rattle And Hum" film, Bono and Hilburn had breakfast and the singer mentioned a handful of projects he was contemplating, including a screenplay, a novel, some short stories and essays.

Hilburn viewed this as a red flag, fearing Bono ran the risk of spreading himself too thin at a pivotal career point, and unleashed some heavy ammo: He asked Bono how many great songs he'd written thus far -- and in the same breath, asked how many great songs Dylan, Cole Porter and Lennon had written. We see in a fe
w places the impact of this tactic, including in Bono's intro, where he acknowledges feeling "chastened."

Which brings me back, finally, to the way "Corn Flakes" guided me to a reconfigured take on rock criticism. When people discuss a significant, truly influential critic -- whether that's in the realm of literature, film, music, theater, fine art, etc. -- that discussion typically revolves around that critic's reviews.

What made Pauline Kael, well, Pauline Kael were her reviews. Same goes for Kenneth Tynan. Or Michiko Kakutani. And in contrast to critiquing film or theater or books, in the world of pop music criticism, there are two components that might get reviewed: recordings and performance.

Interestingly, however, although Hilburn was an endlessly prolific critic, writing multiple album and concert reviews damn near every week for more than three decades, the impression that emerges from "Corn Flakes" is that healtered the music landscape, the singular craft of pop music criticism and, in some cases, the creative output of certain artists not by his reviews so much as by his

Meaning both the conversations themselves, and the resulting published pieces, even if those pieces could only capture a percentage of any given discussion (he retired from
The Times before that paper had even an adequate much less stellar online presence).

You get the sense that artists enjoyed--and benefited from--both formal and informal conversations with Hilburn, whether it was someone as irrepressibly loquacious as Bono or as famously media-wary (and world weary) as Dylan. And we, the reader, benefited enormously from those exchanges, brimming as they were--and are in this book--with insights, revelations and great humor.

As another measure of Hilburn's conversational gifts, and winning personality, John Lennon often sought his company, inviting him to dinner and other social gatherings. (Some of those visits explain the "Corn Flakes" title--y
ou'll have to read the book!)

Hilburn's kindness, humility and generosity of spirit come through this book again and again. Not at all a surprise to me. In the late 70s, I was attending college at UC Davis, covering music for the school paper and freelancing for
The Sacramento Bee and regional music magazines like BAM.

I sent Hilburn a small sampling of my writing, and to my utter shock and delight, a few weeks later, a short, encouraging note arrived from him, saying, in effect, that I was on the right track, and to keep at it.

About a year and half later, when I was nearing graduation, I sent him another batch of writing. Sure enough, I got a note back, this onealso brief, but huge in the way it changed my life: It said the reviews were "taut and convincing" and that I should be doing this writing for them-- for
The L.A. Times -- and could be if I were living in Southern California.

Within a few months, I was living in Orange County, and writing for
The Times, thanks to Bob Hilburn. I'd have corn flakes with him anytime.