It’s that time of year again, when artists of pretty much every genre do everything possible to grab your attention with new recordings of holiday classics. From major stars like Kelly Clarkson to obscure indie bands—everybody wants a piece of the holiday action. Last year, my roundup contained quite a few compilations and original releases, but this time I will keep it short and point out two favorites that came across my desk during this joyous season.
First on the list is Grammy-nominated jazz veteran Nnenna Freelon, whose “Christmas” collection features familiar favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” but man, does she swing those tunes, freely improvising around the melodies with the help of the John Brown Big Band, who expertly add their own nuanced grooves. This is not your traditional singer-backed-by-a-big-band disc. In tracks like “Spiritual Medley,” the arrangements are quite subtle, while things get hot with Duke Ellington’s “I Like The Sunrise,” and even “Silent Night,” is subjected to a Gospel treatment. The album closes with a New Orleans take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” that immediately gets your feet tapping. Read the rest of this entry »
Julie Meckler’s voice is soft and pleasant, and it floats over her acoustic guitar with the familiar, idyllic buoyancy of a rowboat. Left in the wake of her playing are strains of precious and patient melodies, alternating throughout her debut long-player “Queenshead,” most affectedly on the a capella tune “The Cigarettes Song.” The spontaneous results of a throwaway moment—”we were smoking cigarettes in the snow in Chicago”—have a raw majesty missing from the rest of the album, which by way of contrast seems too carefully composed. The listener faces a dilemma: this could be any other release by any other up-and-coming singer/songwriter stuck in the cafe tropes that garner paying gigs. Fortunately, Meckler has an ear for detail that bats those banal qualities away. Field recordings of ambient noise—the traffic in Chicago, the sound of whirling wind—these attributes create a density and purpose that continually ground the carefree melodies, something especially impressive given the inclusion of a bonafide reggae tune in “Bitch.” Read the rest of this entry »
Per Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, some are too old to rock ‘n’ roll, but too young to die. At seventy-one, Paul McCartney seems to defy the odds by relentlessly touring and consistently releasing new music. On his aptly titled “New,” he briefly looks into the past but has his eyes firmly locked on the future by working with young producers like Giles Martin (son of George Martin) and Mark Ronson, who all collaborated to give McCartney a more contemporary sound.
The disc opens with “Save Us,” a track reminiscent of Queen guitarist Brian May’s solo work via its multi-tracked vocals and layered guitars. The title track (also the lead single) has a retro seventies feel thanks to its prominent use of synthesizers, its vocal structure, and its general mood. The song has an immediately captivating groove, especially the harmonies at the end of each verse. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s all been vaguely pervy over the last four decades for Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers behind whatever Sparks has become. Beginning around 1971 as Halfnelson, the pair, backed by an occasionally muscular, glammish rock troupe, issued a disc that no one particularly cared for at the time. Luckily, having Todd Rundgren’s name attached as producer gave ‘em a second shot, and the album was reissued the following year as the self-titled “Sparks” disc. Tracks like “Roger” work through a Bowie-esque pop sensibility while engaging enough obtuse experimentation to warrant the bizarrely timed reissue. The same year as Sparks’ second go-round at a first album, “A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing” saw release; without Rundgren’s patronage. The disc continued along with similar musical and lyrical motifs, including album-closer “Whippings and Apologies.” Some stringed accompaniment crops up on “Here Comes Bob,” which perfectly matches Russell’s high-pitched crooning, but Sparks remains revered for its 1974 “Kimono My House”—an admittedly ingenious title. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Nick Helderman
By Dave Cantor
Camped out at the Shadow Shoppe, a recording studio doubling as a residence in an industrial area near Amsterdam, Jacco Gardner’s been burrowing into an insular universe.
It’s a place the multi-instrumentalist has been exploring for almost a third of his life. And it’s been fully realized, in musical terms, as “Cabinet of Curiosities,” which Chicago’s Trouble in Mind issued Stateside earlier this year.
With the album’s release, Gardner’s granted listeners access to a collection of vivid “fairytales,” as he calls them, each recorded on his own at the Shoppe, save for the disc’s more complicated drumming. The work’s been cobbled together over the last eight years, drawing from the more baroque moments of sixties pop music. There aren’t any distinct hints of contemporary Europe in Gardner’s songs, and an unknowing listener could easily mistake just about anything “Cabinet” offers as a selection from the first psychedelic era. It’s more than mere retread, though—it’s a twenty-four-year old’s imagination splayed out over twelve tracks. But “Cabinet” would warrant notoriety even if Gardner hadn’t played guitar, bass, keys and a variety of synthesizers.
Despite his ostensible squatting, his homeland Holland has embraced “Cabinet,” sending Gardner on a series of TV appearances and performances at venues that would overwhelm U.S. musicians of comparable popularity over here. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Matías Corral
Tireless San Francisco rockers Thee Oh Sees took a leisurely approach to touring on their latest album. Released back in April, “Floating Coffin” marks visionary John Dwyer’s twelfth album in ten years. Full of ambition but not hinged on direction, OCS (as the group was originally billed) began as Dwyer’s extracurricular project way back when. Several releases, some name changes, and a few band members later—the current count is five—Thee Oh Sees’ fertility has endured.
Just like on past albums, concept and cadence on “Floating Coffin” have been thrown into the woodchipper and expectorated. Or, imagine a game-show wheel with narrow pegs jutting out along the circumference of its pizza-sliced face, and the labels fuzz rock, psych-folk, psych-pop, garage, punk, noise, children’s songs and Krautrock tapering into the center. The wheel is spun and an excitement of the outcome builds, only there’s no stopping device. The wheel remains perpetually unpredictable. This is how Thee Oh Sees have proven that time, not concept, is all they need to be a truly great band. Read the rest of this entry »
Tijuana-born Julieta Venegas is a multi-faceted singer-songwriter who is equally comfortable belting out acoustic-based, folksy tunes alongside more pop-oriented songs, as evidenced by her 2012 release “Los Momentos,” which she is promoting with an extended tour of the United States. ”Los Momentos“ showcases a more mature side of Venegas, who took a short break from performing following the birth of her daughter Simona three years ago. Her songs have a greater depth, and she has come to embrace traditional instruments with greater frequency. The title track has a touch of jazz, and the black-and-white promo video for the tune has a retro fifties feel that showcases her accompanied by a grand piano. Read the rest of this entry »
When the slightest degrees separate the coffeehouse hack from the gifted songstress, it’s no easy task being a woman armed with an acoustic guitar. Often too subtle for fame, and therefore too obscure to be relevant, singer-songwriters walk a tense tightrope between credibility and, well, dullsville. They are unheralded, they are unappreciated, they are the unloved stepchildren of the music world. For the fortunate few who manage to conjure their craft at precisely the right moment and for precisely the right audience, the gamble can pay off dividends. In this circumstance, the mode of expression has an effect few other ensembles can manage. There’s something mystically personal about the experience for the listener, as though the tunes were carefully handcrafted to the refined specifications of each individual. Take for instance Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” which will be covered in its entirety by Chicagoan Eiren Caffall as part of The Whistler’s “Playing Favorites” series. Read the rest of this entry »
“La Voce Toa” is among the best songs of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino’s, and it happens to be the sole English-language tune on their 2012 album “Pizzica Indiavolata.” The vocal belongs to Piers Faccini, an English singer-songwriter who is currently touring the United States in support of “Between Dogs and Wolves,” his second release via San Francisco-based indie label Six Degrees.
Faccini’s style is a mix of folk, blues and acoustic rock with a heavy African influence and a dab of jam-band feel. But don’t expect him to get lost in endless guitar riffs during his performances. In fact, when playing Stateside he travels lightly, accompanied only by his own guitar and a percussionist, which allows fans to focus on his voice. His heartfelt delivery has a laid-back feel, and his reflexive lyrics set him apart from today’s shoegazing singer-songwriters. Read the rest of this entry »
When contemporary critics call art “outsider,” it is meant to refer to an artist who has learned outside of the reach of institutionalized instruction. Outsider artists tend to be self-taught, those who learn by doing, often marginalized for their lack of refinement. With luck, the rawness of the outsider artist becomes a tremendous asset, able to sharpen the focus of the expression by privileging the power of the message over the style of its messenger. To the listener, the insight is registered as a singular voice, a signature style. The challenge for artists of this ilk is to avoid becoming so outsider as to feel alien. Willis Earl Beal, for instance, was born in Chicago, but it doesn’t feel like he’s from anywhere at all. He’s signed to Britain’s XL Recordings, the same label that put out the latest Radiohead album. They released the final Gil Scott-Heron LP as well, a much better point of comparison for Beal’s work, whose sophomore effort “Nobody knows.” [sic] is a marked departure from the bedroom recordings and loose-leaf drawings that defined his initial approach. Read the rest of this entry »