Moon Thoughts on Music 2013

These days in the endlessly onrushing music slipstream, it’s always doom times (the music industry is on the verge of collapse!) and it’s always the best of times (look at all these indie phenoms making music on laptops!). There’s so much going on, in terms of sheer output, that it’s impossible to generalize about anything – except that there’s no shortage of galvanizing work at our fingertips. Here, in no particular order, are the records that sustained me in 2013.

The National: Trouble Will Find Me (4AD). Each new thought on the opening track “I Should Live in Salt” gets its own punctuation, in the form of the solemn and accusatory responsorial phrase “You should know me better than that.” Sad and hypnotic, this mantra opens the curtain on an album-length meditation about how little can really be known about love, while it’s alive and when it’s in embers.

Dawn of Midi: Dysnomia (Thirsty Ear). Every few years, there comes a record that obliterates entrenched preconceptions about sound and rhythm. Dysnomia is this year’s model. Starting with traditional instrumentation (acoustic piano, bass, drums), this trio builds dizzying spikey Steve Reich polyrhythms, and uses them as the basis for sprawling explorations into improvised rhythmic displacement. The conceptual contrast is striking – the core sounds say “jazz trio” while the sensibility derives from electronica – but this is never just an odd mashup: It’s a fully developed environment that grows more hypnotic as it unfolds.

Elvis Costello and The Roots: Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs (Blue Note). Leave aside the semantic question of “Can this be the Roots if there’s no Black Thought?,” and focus instead on the challenge Elvis Costello faced here: Telling his sharply observed tales of love and honor over the elastic and endlessly shape-shifting backbeats of the Roots. Not only does he master new and different cadences for his talky lyrics – see “Sugar Won’t Work” and “Tripwire” – in several places, most notably the trenchant and multi-dimensional “Come the Meantimes,” he seems to morph into a completely different being. The year’s best Mashup Life selfie.

Vieux Farka Toure: Mon Pays/My Country (Six Degrees). The son of legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure has been making records for a few years now, and this one – which obliquely comments on the political turmoil in his homeland (the hardline Islamists there have said that under their rule, music will be banned) – is easily the most entrancing. Toure specializes in repetitive hooklike chants that please the ear immediately, and his band, which includes the son of kora master Toumani Diabate, bolsters the calls for peace with some fluid-yet-muscular groovemaking.

Dom la Nena: Ela (Six Degrees). Cellist, singer and songwriter Dominque Pinto works within several distinct vocabularies: She knows the bossa nova and samba traditions of her Brazilian homeland, the many twisting turns in the classical cello repertoire, and the vast ambient realms of Tangerine Dream and others. On Ela, those references combine into sublime and disarmingly beautiful sounds, carrying traces of Juana Molina and other collage artists but occupying their own space on the spectrum of magic. Recommended especially for those who think that Laura Mvula’s tediously unexceptional Sing To The Moon was the debut of the year.

Chris Thile: Bach: Sonatas and Partitas Vol. 1 (Nonesuch). It was a nice year for Bach, what with Jeremy Denk’s wiley tour of the Goldberg Variations and this astonishing adaptation of the great master’s sparkling violin music for mandolin. Even those who appreciate Punch Brother Chris Thile’s deep talent were probably not prepared for this – somehow, on an instrument that can’t “sing” or slur lines or sustain notes like the violin, Thile creates breathy, shapely, thoughtfully original phrasing that opens up new vistas on this old music.

Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe (Domin0). Devonte Hynes can sound like a hormonal diva on a bender, or a tortured ‘80s rocker with distressed hair, or a Human League wannabe noodling in the basement. All those personas (and others) are integral to Cupid Deluxe, his first offering as Blood Orange. Slightly campy and deliriously hooky, this is a kind of meta synth-pop – all blithe fun on the surface, with unsettling confessions and sly musical complexities lurking, Prince-style, underneath. Look out for whatever multi-instrumentalist Hynes does; he’s a huge talent, and so is his vocal foil, the awesome Samantha Urban.

Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (XL Recordings). When Vampire Weekend first appeared, I was fairly lonely in the Underwhelmed camp. Where many critics praised the bubbly indie rock-goes-to-Africa conceit, to me it felt bottled up and studious, mostly because in live performance the band struggled to create the momentum that comes naturally to African musicians. The New York band did some conceptual re-arranging of the furniture for this third album, creating an arrestingly nuanced set of pop songs adorned with groove, grit and surprisingly apt orchestral flourishes.

Sigur Ros: Kveikur (XL Recordings). At once the most accessible and unsettling album ever from Icelandic progressives Sigur Ros, Kveikur dwells in a kind of mottled darkness – its shadows have their own subsidiary shadows, and its dissonances come bathed in their own echoey afterglow. Stupendous.

Wayne Shorter Quartet: Without a Net (Blue Note). This has little in common with live jazz as practiced by most mortals – it’s a spectacularly intricate four-way conversation that shows not merely how far Shorter’s haunting songs can be stretched, but how their resonances can change in the course of a rangey and sometimes free-associative conversation.

 AND A DOZEN MORE….. Jim James: Regions of Light and Sound of God; Charles Lloyd & Jason Moran: Hagar’s Song; Thelonious Monk: Paris 1969; Iron & Wine: Ghost On Ghost; Neil Young: Live at the Cellar Door; Elton John: The Diving Board; Albert Heath/Ethan Iverson/Ben Street: Tootie’s Tempo; Jonathan Wilson; Fanfare; Arcade Fire: Reflektor; Pat Metheny: Tap – John Zorn’s Book of Angels Vol. 20; Boards of Canada: Tomorrow’s Harvest; MIA: Matangi.


20 (or so) Peak Moments on Records Released in 2011

I’ll dispense with the usual preamble about how it was a great or horrendous year for music – it was both at the same time, of course. (These days there’s so much output coming from so many microslivered scenes, it’s ridiculous to make broad proclamations anyway….). They’re in no particular order – as Bob Dylan likes to say, it’s all good. Enjoy!


Tom Waits: Bad As Me . These songs start from a place where everything is broken, honor is long gone and everybody’s locked in the grand drain-circling swirl of destiny. Then the band kicks into its higher gear, stomping out lusty if slightly preposterous marches, rambles and elegies. Waits’ characters fall right in, and though they’re well acquainted with futility, they press on, endearingly, lost in the search for love, hope, and redemption. Which they do not typically find. Doesn’t matter.

Miles Davis: Live in Europe 1967.   The Paris version of “Masqualero,” on disc three of this collection of mostly unreleased live performances, lasts ten minutes. That’s all it takes to develop renewed awe for the astoundingly interactive on-the-fly genius of this ensemble. Davis’ stark melodies are set against lovely watercolor chords and endlessly elastic metric machinations – check out how often these five supremely alert musicians completely transform a mood in the space between downbeats. 2011 was a solid year of creativity in jazz – or, in the parlance of the latest Facebook “movement,” Black American Music (please, let us know when the fences and tollbooths are in place!) – but somehow everything current sounds anemic next to this.

Bon Iver: Bon Iver. Fragile songs riddled with questioning and doubt, rendered in spectacularly harmonized falsetto floral arrays. (The solo vocal tunes, deep into the record, are pretty great too….).

Wilco: The Whole Love. Here’s the balance between daydreamy folk-rock confessional and adventurous avant-downtown dissonance Wilco has been aiming for on the last few records. It seems clinical when described this way in words; in music, it sounds like pure giddy genius.

Black Keys: El Camino.  Bachman-Turner Overdrive roaring out of the classic-rock deep freeze on a nasty tequila bender.

Jonathan Wilson: Gentle Spirit.  Speaking of the ‘70s, here’s a slice of idyllic, gorgeously poised (and wondrously nostalgia-free) Laurel Canyon rock. Framed by intertwined guitar leads and lit from within by trance-state melodies, Wilson’s songs occupy a zone of warm, open-hearted reflection.

James Farm: James Farm. There was lots of new orchestrational thinking in improvised music this year, and among the most pleasant examples is this debut from a quartet that sounds like a real band. Imagine that.

Adele: 21. File this one under “admiration, not love.” When I first heard it, I felt that the plush production rounded off some of Adele’s crucial sharp edges. After endless repeat exposure to the songs, my quibbles with the production remain. But I have to give it up: There is just no denying that voice.

Radiohead: The King of Limbs. As with pretty much everything the band has done, this record opens genuinely new doors, suggests new combinations of texture and emotion, offers new takes on the peculiar alchemy of a rock song.

Drake: Take Care. Lots of prominent rappers kvetch about the trials of fame – Eminem dines quite well on that theme, and Kanye West blew it to  smithereens on the ultra-dense My Beautiful Twisted Fantasy. Drake goes in a brutally honest introspective direction here, singing and rapping as though he’s just emerged from a meditation retreat where he discovered all kinds of loathesome things about himself. Along with Undun, below, this feels like a necessary (and overdue) course correction for commercial hiphop.

The Roots: Undun. This is the record to play for your friend who complains about the rampant ego glorification that dominates so much hiphop discourse. A musically exuberant, lyrically sobering tour through the mind of an average tortured urbandweller, Undun represents a storytelling peak for the Roots, but that’s not all: Its sung refrains (“Tip The Scales”) give voice to the sad disillusionment that settled in after those Obama-led “Yes We Can” chants died down.

The Decemberists: The King Is Dead. After unleashing a sprawling prog-rock opus, what else is there to do but create a series of diabolically focused little songs that strive for the sorrow-filled, world-weary tones of the great Hank Williams?

tUnE yArDs: Who Kill. Technology has come a long way since Solex’ monstrously inventive Low Kick and Hard Bop from 2001, and this album, which is the spiritual heir to that one, harnesses it brilliantly, dropping listeners into the middle of an African ritual one minute and a beautifully layered Joni Mitchell confession the next.

My Morning Jacket: Circuital.  Epic journeys and existential mindgames coalesce into the most consistent set of songs from the band that is arguably the most consistently rousing live act on the road.

Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What. Worth hearing just for the title track, which captures the thoughts of a numb Everyman as he struggles to comprehend the unhinged opinions and unwelcome advertisments, the trash and transcendence and “look at me” ravings that constitute the modern media assault.

Bill Frisell 858 Quartet: Sign of Life . These pensive etudes glide right across the territorial lines that divide jazz, bluegrass and chamber music, describing an elusive and endlessly fragile shadow world.

J.D. Allen Trio: Victory!  This year some tenor player put out a record proclaiming The Triumph of the Heavy. It wasn’t. This is.

Various Artists: El Barrio: The Ultimate Collection of Latin Boogaloo, Disco, Funk and Soul. Fania Records was never just the incubator of New York salsa – the label was also responsible for some monstrously energetic backbeat music. Surveying commercial hits and influential album tracks, this four-disc compilation shows how the flirtatious Latin-soul boogaloo pulse of the ‘60s evolved into muscular, utterly unique strains of funk.

Gretchen Parlato: The Lost and Found. Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding snagged all of this year’s jazz love in the media. But several people in her circle – most notably the singer Gretchen Parlato – made far more interesting records than her cluttered Chamber Music Society. Parlato has a great sense of space and impressive  command of a carefully controlled stage whisper; on the best moments here (“Still,” a delightfully loose version of Wayne Shorter’s “Juju”), she kills softly.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Amos Lee: Mission Bell; M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming; Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean; Lisa Hannigan: Passenger; The Weekend: House of Balloons; The Beach Boys: Smile!; The Rolling Stones: Some Girls.


A Different Kind of X Factor

Out of the spectacular disarray of the modern record business, several abiding truths have emerged, and a few have even taken root as gospel. One has to do with the primacy of the live experience: How, regardless of the genre, there is a certain “thing” that happens when a group of musicians gather to chase ideas together. At the risk of sounding New Age squishy, you could call it an “energy.” If at this juncture you require an illustration of this, track down anything from the new Miles Davis Quintet Bootleg Series Vol. 1, Live In Europe 1967. It’s frightening and intense and completely riveting. (I’ll scribble more on it in a subsequent post….).

In a sense, this energy is the eternal live-music holy grail, and it happens at all levels and in any size venue. You’re walking by a bar no bigger than a railroad car, and before you even process what song is being played, you can tell that some music of substance is going on – and you’re drawn to discover what the musicians are in the process of discovering. It seems effortless but is rarely accidental. There are environmental variables, and attitude variables, and also technical hurdles; sometimes even the most skilled players end up crashing and burning, while beginners stumble into greatness. There is, though, one X-Factor that seems to be a constant throughout many of these situations: Open-mindedness. Some players radiate the willingness to explore and try stuff, and just by their openness, they create conditions that are favorable for creativity. Possibilities seem to open up when they are involved. They lift everyone on stage up. People begin to listen at a deeper level. Connections just happen.

If there’s an aesthetic goal of Jazz Casual (the Tuesday night session at Milkboy Philly), it’s to develop a setting where those connections are possible. Even if it means playing very much in a back-to-basics temperment – especially if that’s what prevails. The & Friends band is wired that way, and so are the guests we’ve lined up. Last week, the pianist Mike Frank – a firestarter who is integral to an array of musical endeavors in Philly right now – tossed out ear-stretching, endlessly surprising ideas. This week, we’re lucky to be joined by vibraphonist Behn Gillece, who participated with Mike Frank and I in the Moon Hotel Lounge Project experiment. Behn plays a regular Tuesday thing at Small’s in NYC — we’re lucky to get him! — and leads a ferocious band of his own. You might have seen him accompanying Melody Gardot, among others. As I’ve learned hearing him play in many different contexts, Behn has a gift for sneaking subtle colors and shades into the musical landscape, responding in ways that seem to gently open up possibilities.

Check him out tonight at Jazz Casual! He’ll be playing with TM, Ryan McNeely (guitar), Mark Pryzbylowski (bass), Eli Sklarsky (drums) and some special guests! Begins shortly after 8 pm at Milkboy Philly, 1100 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. 215.925.MILK.

And then tomorrow at: