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Posted by Paul in "Art"

Favorite Music 2018

Ten favorites from 2018, presented in alphabetical order.

The Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl

This band had worked themselves into a safe folk-rock cul-de-sac over the last couple of albums, so it is great to hear them try some new approaches (synthesizers, more abrasive guitars). Highlights include sing-along songs for the slow apocalypse we live in (“Everything is Awful”, “We All Die Young”), “Severed”, and this albums long suite based on a folk story (Russian folk story, this time): “Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes”. Vocabulary words from the lyrics (there’ll be a test later):

  • abrades
  • alight
  • anon
  • augur
  • bereft
  • clamber
  • cusping
  • fey
  • glowered
  • liminal
  • lolled
  • petard
  • wrought

Ekoin Temple Morning Service

Ekoin Temple, Koyasan, Japan
November 11, 2018, 6:30 am

On our trip to Japan we (Caitlin and I) spent a night at a Buddhist temple in Koyasan. The next morning, a little sore from sleeping on a thin cushion laid on top of tatami mat flooring, we got up early to attend the 6:30 am morning service. The service was in a candle-lit temple. Four monks were arranged around an altar. The service, about 30 minutes long, was very musical in nature, with chanting punctuated by a gong and cymbals. I’ve heard recordings of ceremonies like this in the past, but to see and hear it in person was a powerful and memorable experience.

The Hold Steady – Three Singles: “Eureka” / “Esther”, “The Stove & The Toaster” / “Star 18”, “Confusion in the Marketplace” /” T-Shirt Tux”

It is so great to to have Franz Nicolay and his keyboards back in the band. These three singles harken back to The Hold Steady in their 2005-2008 prime. Unreliable narrators exhibiting poor judgement in sketchy situations in the company of dubious friends. All described over killer guitar riffs.

IDLES – Joy as a Form of Resistance

“If someone talked to you
The way you talk to you
I’d put their teeth through
Love yourself!”
(From “Television”)

A great punky rock record from the UK. The two guitars are loud and often distorted, with bass and drums holding the songs together. Singer Joe Talbot writes lyrics that are angry, funny, and empathic (sometimes all at the same time). The songs often have great sing-along choruses, although lyrics sometimes fall back on cliches. The song “I’m Scum” is about class differences, “Danny Nedelko” is about immigration, “Great” addresses Brexit, “June” is about the heartbreak of a stillborn child, and “Love Song” is a funny take on modern relationships.

A key theme of the record is finding a healthy identity as a male in an era when the ugliness and brutality of traditional masculinity have become all too apparent. This is explored in “Colossus” (“I am my father’s son/His shadow weighs a ton”), “Never Fight a Man With a Perm”, “Television”, and most directly in “Samaritans”:

“Man up, Sit down, Chin up, Pipe down
Socks up, Don’t cry, Drink up, Don’t whine
Grow some balls, he said
Grow some balls

The mask
Of masculinity
Is a mask
A mask that’s killing me
The mask, the mask, the mask”

Great record, great band.

Angélique Kidjo – Remain in Light

Kidjo takes Talking Heads back to Africa in a delightful bit of cultural re-acquisition. The original Remain in Light is one of my top 10 albums of all time. Kidjo’s version brings a warmth and vitality to the songs that the original lacks (I love David Byrne, but warmth has never been one of his stronger attributes).

Zoë Keating – Snowmelt EP

Four tracks of warm, embracing music. The sound of healing, the sound of the ice cracking, the sound of emerging from darkness. A self-described “one-woman orchestra”, Keating coaxes every kind of noise you can imagine out of her cello, using looping and multi tracking to build up intricate pieces.

Lydia Loveless – Live Performance, Roswell, NM, 8-Jun-2018

One Friday I drove three hours down to Roswell to see Lydia Loveless perform solo, opening for Justin Townes Earle. If you’re a singer/songwriter, performing alone with just an acoustic guitar in a tiny club leaves you no place to hide. Lydia Loveless is the real deal. She writes great songs (think young Chrissie Hynde), plays a serviceable guitar, and has a HOLY SHIT FORCE OF NATURE voice.

After her set she sat behind her merch table. I said “Hi” and she sold me a t-shirt. Such is the life of a critically acclaimed musician on tour.

Michele Mercure – Beside Herself

My archival release of the year. A collection of synthesizer recorded in Mercure’s home studios between 1983 and 1993, much of it recorded for theatrical productions and self-released on cassette. The music shows the inventiveness of a talented and curious artist exploring a new medium. The music transfer from tape and remastering make the material sound great, and the packaging and liner notes do a great job of putting the music, and Michele Mercure’s career, into context. It is always great to see wonderful but lesser known music rescued from obscurity.

The National – Live Performance, Berkeley, CA, 24-Sep-2018

The first time I saw The National in concert was on September 28, 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin. Earlier that day the band had played in front of over 25,000 people before a speech by President Obama at a rally on the UW Madison campus. As you might imagine, the band were in a particularly good mood that evening, even a little giddy. I clearly recall two impressions from that concert: 1) The National are a lot looser and funnier live than they seem on their sometimes dour sounding records, and 2) Bryan Devendorf is an amazing drummer. On the whole it was easily one of my top 5 concert experiences.

What a difference the passage of eight years can make. The National still have their sense of humor, and Devendorf is still an amazing drummer, but the music was grittier and singer Matt Berninger’s performance had an angry edge to it. At one point he encouraged the audience to express their feelings about the Kavanaugh nomination. The audience responded vociferously. “Oh, I needed that” said the woman next to me after she sat down. Highlights for me were an emotional “Bloodbuzz, Ohio”, “Mr. November” (celebratory in 2010, a little desperate in 2018), a defiant “Fake Empire”, and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, where Berninger turns his microphone stand around to face the audience, abandons the stage to wander through the crowd, and leaves the singing to the fans. The fans didn’t miss a word. All in all, a memorable and cathartic concert experience.

Comparisons are always treacherous, but at this point I can’t help but compare The National to another of my favorite bands, Radiohead. Both bands have compelling and quirky singers/front men (Berninger/Thom Yorke), both have brothers in the band (Jonny and Colin Greenwood in Radiohead, Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf in The National), and both have guitar players who are notable musicians in non-rock contexts: Bryce Dessner is a composer who has co-written a Grammy-nominated film soundtrack (The Revenant) and written for the Kronos Quartet, and Jonny Greenwood composed the score for the film There Will Be Blood, has recorded Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint”, and has collaborated with Krzysztof Penderecki. Both band write surprisingly sophisticated music (often with cryptic lyrics) and seamlessly incorporate electronics into their live performances (although Radiohead have been doing this longer than The National).

Richard Thompson – 13 Rivers

The Best Guitarist You’ve Never Heard Of has released his best album in 10 years. He’s accompanied by Michael Jerome on drums, who has been playing with Thompson since 2003, and Taras Prodaniuk on bass, who have been with Thompson since 2010. The new additions to the line up are Bobby Eichorn on guitar and three back-up vocalists (Siobhan Meyer Kennedy, Zara Phillips, and (on one track) Judith Owen). The new additions bring some welcome textural diversity to the record. The addition of a second guitar, in particular, seems to give Thompson more room to solo, which is always a good thing. Early stand-out tracks are “The Storm Won’t Come” (a slow burn that ends in guitar pyrotechnics), “The Rattle Within”, “Do All These Tears Belong to You?”, and “Pride”.

Posted by Paul in Music