Friday, November 26, 2010

The Music of 2010

Despite my CD of the Day project that dusted off some older CDs in my collection, I still made plenty of time for great new music in 2010. As is my Black Friday custom, all of the music below comes with the highest possible recommendation as you search for stocking stuffers and the like.

Trombone Shorty
I’d never heard of this young New Orleans phenom until this year, and then it seemed like he was everywhere. And with good reason. Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews plays with a fire in his belly, whether he’s attacking his audience with his eponymous instrument, squealing on trumpet, singing, or dancing his way across the stage. The guy is electric, both on his new record, “Backatown,” and in concert. His blend of rock, funk, hip hop, and R&B is infectious, envigorating, and, as a trombone player myself, inspiring. His show at the 9:30 Club in August was so great, we’re going back for more on New Year’s Day.

The Avett Brothers
The Gaslight Anthem
Patty Griffin
Robert Plant
The Whigs

“American Slang,” The Gaslight Anthem (2010)
This should be no surprise, really, since I devoted five days and thousands of words to this spectacular album earlier this year. Everybody always talks about a “sophomore slump,” but third albums are tricky, too, and dangerous. Gaslight had a lot of pressure living up to “The ’59 Sound,” and they nailed it. And not by simply re-recording that album, but by going in a new, more difficult direction.

“American Slang” is the band’s finest record, their most well crafted. Brian Fallon was already one of my favorite songwriters of all time before this album, and yet his work here reaches a new level of depth. These are lyrics you want to sit with and read along to the music, spend time thinking about; I could quote at least a dozen favorite lines. What I love most is that he tackles difficult personal issues without losing his inherent optimism. This may be Gaslight’s version of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” but there’s light at the end of their tunnel.

And the songs! As you’ll see below, I finally managed to settle on one, but at least five tracks from this album were considered my “favorite” at one point or another this year, and I still haven’t fully decided. Pop, punk, soul, classic rock … “American Slang” has it all, yet it all still sounds distinctly Gaslight.

The band set itself apart from its peers with this record.

“Backatown,” Trombone Shorty (2010)
“Band of Joy,” Robert Plant (2010)
“Crazy Heart,” soundtrack (2010)
“Ghosts on the Boardwalk,” The Bouncing Souls (2010)
“Good Morning, Magpie,” Murder By Death (2010)
“I and Love and You,” The Avett Brothers (2009)
“In the Dark,” The Whigs (2010)
“The Promise,” Bruce Springsteen (2010)
“Soulsville,” Huey Lewis and the News (2010)
“Why You Runnin’” EP, Lissie (2009)
“You Are Not Alone,” Mavis Staples (2010)

“High Violet,” The National (2010)
“Maya,” M.I.A. (2010)
“The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire (2010)

“Suburbia,” Trombone Shorty (from 2010’s “Backatown”)
Never would I have thought my favorite song of 2010 wouldn’t have a single lyric, but greatness is greatness, and “Suburbia” is great. There’s so much going on in this trombone-and-guitar manifesto I don’t know where lyrics would even fit, anyway. There’s so much power in this track; Trombone Shorty is absolutely blasting away on his instrument, with a backing band equal to his call. What I really love about this song, though, is how it moves and changes, shifting shapes in so many ways over the course of just 3 minutes 20 seconds. And yet, the powerhouse core riff is always there, waiting to explode again. Since I first heard this song, whenever I needed a boost of energy in 2010, I went straight to “Suburbia.”


“Ain’t No Grave,” Johnny Cash (from 2010’s “Ain’t No Grave”)
Johnny Cash’s final album isn’t as good as the other American Recordings, but this track, which plays like a sequel to “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” was worth waiting for. The sparse, chain-rattling chiller is one of his best from this series.

“All Those Yesterdays,” Pearl Jam (from 1998’s “Yield,” as performed live 5.13.10)
As I wrote back in May, this was one of my Pearl Jam “bucket list” songs. Never thought I’d hear it in person (they’ve only played it 13 times since 1998), but always hoped to. It did not disappoint. The closing track to my favorite Pearl Jam album was as majestic as ever.

“Awake My Soul,” Mumford and Sons (from 2009’s “Sigh No More”)
In the Star Wars novels from recent years, there’s a phrase the authors like to use: suit action to words. That’s the idea with this song. I do actually feel revitalized after listening to it. This was a strong contender for Song of the Year from a brilliant new band.

“Big Eyes,” The Bouncing Souls (from 2010’s “Ghosts on the Boardwalk”)
The Souls continued to stretch themselves with this album, and this song, in particular. It plays like a more serious take on the front-porch feel of “The Pizza Song.” With its acoustic rhythm guitar and overall toned-down vibe, this shows real growth and is one of the band’s best tracks.

“Bloodbuzz Ohio,” The National (from 2010’s “High Violet”)
Yeah, I hated this album. But if I only had one song to try and make someone a National fan, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” wouldn’t be a bad choice. Everything I love about the band is in this song: the pounding drums; the swirling guitars; the piano flourishes that dance around the edges; and Matt Berninger’s resonant voice, which sounds as good as ever here. This is the one song from “High Violet” that holds up to “Boxer,” which is the best compliment I can possibly give it.

“Cry to Me,” Huey Lewis and the News (from 2010’s “Soulsville”)
There’s a full post coming about this album of Stax covers, but for now let me just say: How great is this?!?! Huey and the News may be a fun bar-band-gone-huge from the ’80s, but this release, their first in years, demonstrates there was a lot of depth hiding behind those winking and smiling hit songs. Tough to choose a favorite, so this one may or may not be here for its association with the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack.

“The Day,” Murder By Death (from 2010’s “Good Morning, Magpie”)
After a wonderfully idiosyncratic album, MBD reminds at the conclusion to “Magpie” they can still bring the apocalyptic heavy. “The Day” is spooky, scary, spectacular stuff. The last 30 seconds alone make this song one of my favorites of the year.

“Everywhere I Go,” Lissie (from 2009’s “Why You Runnin’” EP/2010’s “Catching A Tiger” LP)
If you’re gonna sing about angels, then you should probably have the voice of one. That’s Lissie, who stunned me with her 2009 debut EP's stark beauty. “Everywhere I Go” gets the nod here, but really any of those five songs could be considered a favorite of the past year. Unfortunately, she fell victim to pop sensibilities on her first official LP, which makes the inclusion of this song stand out like a sore thumb. Still, when she hits that “ANGELS” note … wow.

“Fallin’ & Flyin’,” Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell (from 2010’s “Crazy Heart” soundtrack)
There are a handful of great songs from Bridges on this outstanding soundtrack to a spectacular film, but I went with this one because it was my favorite scene in the movie, when Farrell joins Bridges onstage. Bridges does this little motion telling Farrell to get back on the mic that I just love, like a dad showing pride for his son. Bridges is magnificent as both an actor and singer, and this is just one of several examples. (Farrell’s shockingly good as a Western vocalist, too.)

“Far Away,” Jose Gonzalez/“Deadman’s Gun,” Ashtar Command (from 2010’s “Red Dead Redemption” soundtrack)
“Red Dead Redemption” is one of the best video games I’ve ever played. Entertainment Weekly described the smash hit from Rockstar (“Grand Theft Auto”) like walking around in “Deadwood,” and that’s just about right. And not only is the game awesome, but so is the soundtrack. These two moody Western ballads come at crucial points in the game and set the perfect tone for what’s happening on screen. They’re a testament to the level of quality Rockstar achieved with this singular title.

“Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” The Avett Brothers (from 2009’s “I and Love and You”)
The Avetts’ voices speak to me in an elemental way I’m a little at a loss to explain. It’s the clarity, I think. They sing with such grace, and power, and finesse, and energy—sometimes all at once, sometimes just pieces of those things. This song is also a good representation of the positivity the Avetts strive to create—in themselves, in their fans, in their world. It’s right there in the title: Everyone has doubts, but there’s always reason for hope; you have to use that hope to drown out the darkness in yourself. Be aggressive about it. It’s a song about living out your dreams, but the subject matter is handled frankly, realistically, and in that acknowledgement is its power.

This song includes one of my favorite lyrics of the past year:

When nothing is old, deserved or expected
And your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected
If you’re loved by someone you’re never rejected
Decide what to be and go be it

Match lines like that to a sweeping, moving score, and you have one of my favorite songs of the year.

“Heavy in Your Arms,” Florence + the Machine (from 2010’s “Eclipse” soundtrack)
Florence Welch is on the verge of exploding into the popular consciousness. Her 2009 debut, “Lungs,” was one of my favorites from last year and it’s still gaining traction—one of those slow-burn situations. Last weekend she delivered one of the best “Saturday Night Live” performances I’ve ever seen, and next year she’s opening for U2. This song isn’t one of her very best, but it’s a more than serviceable introduction for the Twilight crowd, which certainly can’t hurt (just ask Paramore and Muse). The thunderous percussion, dramatic pauses and changes of direction, and, more than anything, Welch’s clarion-call of a voice … it’s all here in this track.

“Hundred/Million,” The Whigs (from 2010’s “In the Dark”)
The year I finally joined Facebook, The Whigs’ Parker Gispert summarized the digital age with this song: “There’s a hundred million people in my mind/Which is me, and which is not?” That’s the chorus of this sinewy rocker, which kicks off one of my favorite albums of the year.

“Hustle and Cuss,” The Dead Weather (from 2010’s “Sea of Cowards”)
I instantly fell in love with this lowdown, dirty piece of blues when it was used on the soundtrack for UFC’s hype series for the Brock Lesnar/Cain Velasquez heavyweight title fight in October. It played in the background as Lesnar went through his grueling, ferocious workout, and fit the mountain of a man perfectly. Even though Lesnar went on to lose that bout, I’ll always think back on the mixture of those images and this song with fondness. It takes Jack White an album to figure out his bands; he’s now three-for-three on second efforts, as “Cowards” is a significant improvement over last year’s “Horehound.”

“Kentucky Rain,” Elvis Presley (from 2009’s “From Elvis in Memphis: Legacy Edition”)
As I mentioned last year at this time, my appreciation for Elvis has grown steadily since visiting Graceland in 2008. It culminated this January, as there was quite a bit of hype surrounding Presley’s 75th birthday. I’m actually drawn more to his latter-career period, so after putting “Suspicious Minds” on my list for 2009, I went looking for more of the same and found this stirring gem on the bonus disc of “From Elvis in Memphis.” The entire album is great, but this was the track that most captured the power of “Suspicious Minds.” That man sure could sing.

“Long Hard Times to Come”/“On the Run,” Gangstagrass (from 2010’s “Justified” soundtrack)
My favorite new TV show of the season, Timothy Olyphant’s modern Western “Justified” was accompanied by two breakthrough tracks from Gangstagrass, who mixes bluegrass and hip-hop so well, I wonder why someone didn’t think of it a long time ago. “Long Hard Times to Come” plays over the show’s opening credits, while “On the Run” was in the trailer. Both songs perfectly capture the sentiment of the show and were crucial elements of why I loved the series so much. Can’t wait ’til February for Season 2!

“The Only Sound That Matters,” Robert Plant (from 2010’s “Band of Joy”)
Plenty of goodies to pick from on Plant’s outstanding new album, but this simple country-feeling ballad rose to the top, if for no other reason than the main guitar lick reminds me of Springsteen’s “My Hometown.” The only thing that could’ve made this charming effort even better is Alison Krauss’ voice.

“Orphans,” The Gaslight Anthem (from 2010’s “American Slang”)
I’ve gone back and forth and back again on which song to select from my Album of the Year. I finally settled on “Orphans” because it’s the capstone for the album—the mission statement. If I had to pick one line to summarize the entire record, it would be from “Orphans”: “And the clothes I wore just don’t fit my soul anymore.” It’s a song about moving on, standing on your own, establishing yourself. It is “American Slang.”

“Radioactive,” Kings of Leon (from 2010’s “Come Around Sundown”)
I love the sentiment of this song, that no matter how much things change you can always go back to your roots to find some clarity. It’s a fitting first single for this band, who became insanely popular between this release and their last, 2008’s platinum-selling “Only By the Night.” The gospel choir is a great touch, too, for one of the band’s best efforts.

“Rock Problems,” The Hold Steady (from 2010’s “Heaven Is Whenever”)
Craig Finn’s self-deprecating sendup of frontmen complaining about their success is a breath of fresh air. Over one of the hardest-rocking songs on his band’s new album, Finn speaks from a fan’s perspective about how those of us in the real world just can’t sympathize with his “rock and roll problems.” “This is just what we wanted,” Finn agrees. 1993 Eddie Vedder, are you listening?

“Snow Is Gone,” Josh Ritter (from 2010’s “Hello Starling” re-release)
So this folky gem would’ve been great any time I heard it, but it just happened to come across my radar following the worst snowstorm of my life. There couldn’t have been any better timing for a track that sounds like spring breaking through winter's gloom. I defy you not to at least tap a toe to this, which is like the best type of Ryan Adams song—only joyful instead of drunkenly morose.

“Sons of Liberty,” Frank Turner (from 2009’s “Poetry of the Deed”)
I’m sure Frank Turner is a liberal (aren’t they all?), but this song was a personal anthem this year as I watched President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and their ilk reshape our nation in their own socialist image. The last line of this rousing Irish folk/punk monster track eviscerates those who want the government to run their lives for them:

’Cause a man who’d trade his liberty
For a safe and dreamless sleep
Doesn’t deserve the both of them
And neither shall he keep


“You Are Not Alone,” Mavis Staples (from 2010’s “You Are Not Alone”)
The inspired pairing of this gospel legend with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy led to the latter’s best song in years. Tweedy’s duet here with Staples meshes so perfectly, it’s like their two voices become one. It’s a beautiful song, both lyrically and musically. More of this on the next Wilco album, please, Jeff.

Monday, November 08, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Manic Nirvana,’ Robert Plant (1990)

Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.

Here Robert Plant trades ’80s pop for his take on late-’80s hair metal. And you know what? It works! “Manic Nirvana” plays like Plant’s answer to the pop/metal bands dominating radio at the time: Motley Crue, Poison, etc. … in an ironic moment, the bands who took Zeppelin-style riffs and smoothed them out for the masses. It’s all about being big: big guitars, big drums, big sound, big talk about sex … big fun.

Sure, it may cause eyes to roll at times, but at least Plant returns to the Golden God strut that was the hallmark of his younger days. The huge rocker “Big Love,” for instance, takes a run at “The Lemon Song” for most flogging of a double entrendre.

That’s only the first half of the CD, though. The rest of “Manic Nirvana” is quite diverse, kicking off with the outstanding title track, “Nirvana,” which starts with a Red Hot Chili Peppers growl before exploding into a bouncy INXS-esque riff. “Tie Dye on the Highway” follows, a swirling, majestic track that counters the bright “Nirvana” with a dash of darkness.

Plant returns to his blues roots with the massive “Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night,” and the more reserved “Liars Dance.” The latter, one of the shortest tracks in Plant’s solo career at just 2 minutes 35 seconds, is a sparse affair that reminds of a slowed-down “Gallows Pole.” The album closes with yet another twist, as “Watching You” unleashes pounding tribal drums that hint at Plant’s turn in this direction in coming years.

A move away from the studio excesses of the 1980s, this was easily Plant’s best solo album to this point and a harbinger of great work to come. By comparison, it makes me want to go back and downgrade everything he’d done before. Other than “The Honeydrippers,” it’s also the first must-have CD of Plant’s solo career.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “Nirvana”

Least Favorite Track: “I Cried”

Friday, November 05, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Now and Zen,’ Robert Plant (1988)

Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.

This is generally regarded as Robert Plant’s best solo album of the 1980s. I wouldn’t argue with that, I guess, but “Now and Zen” doesn’t do much to separate itself from the rest of Plant’s work from this decade (excluding The Honeydrippers). Like the rest, there are a couple truly standout tracks but the rest is, again, your basic ’80s pop filler.

Plant found his stride in the ’80s with slower songs, and here “Ship of Fools” fits that bill. It’s a fantastic companion to tracks like “Big Log” and “Little by Little,” with delicate guitar work and a devastating vocal. It has the feel of Phil Collins’ best work, and I mean that as a compliment. The other highlight on “Now and Zen” is rocker “Tall Cool One,” which gets a boost from Jimmy Page, though is also diminished slightly by the Zeppelin references tossed in at the end.

My thoughts on “Now and Zen” could apply to all of Plant’s solo albums from the 1980s: he was more a follower than a leader, and it cost him. He’s not the only great artist of his time to struggle with the technology of the era; the synthesizers on “Born in the U.S.A.” still grate on my nerves, for instance. The reverb, the faceless background singers, the drum machines … it all adds up to a level of superficiality that makes these albums hard to champion. There are probably more great songs than the ones I found, they're just buried under over-production.

If you’re in love with the “Jewel of the Nile” soundtrack then, by all means, have at it. There are certainly songs from this period worth savoring; I created my own “best of” collection in iTunes of about a dozen tracks. But in the full context of the fantastic work Plant did both before and after this period of his career, none of the albums from this run place among his best work.

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “Ship of Fools”

Least Favorite Track: “White, Clean and Neat”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Shaken ‘N’ Stirred,’ Robert Plant (1985)

Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.

When this album originally came out on vinyl, I don’t know why anyone would bother listening to Side A.

“Shaken ‘N’ Stirred” is easily Plant’s worst release of the 1980s. The most offensive track is the pseudo-rap disaster “Too Loud”; I can’t imagine ever voluntarily listening through this song again, but the rest isn’t much better. “Hip to Hoo” and “Kallalou Kallalou” is standard, synth-laden ’80s pop fare that could’ve been produced by any male on the scene at that time; the latter even features a “Miami Vice” knockoff bass line. “Pink and Black,” meanwhile, is like Huey Lewis and the News without the knowing wink and smile.

The second half is much better, thankfully, held up by “Little by Little,” a song that dares to have a personality and mood of its own. The same is true for the album’s momentous closing track, “Sixes and Sevens,” whose sparse, bluesy arrangement captures the essence of ’80s pop rather than simply mimics it. “Easily Lead” is the purest rock-and-roll track on the album and holds up well, leaving the ridiculously titled “Doo Doo A Do Do” as the only blemish on this half.

Perhaps if I’d been of music-appreciating age in 1985 “Shaken ‘N’ Stirred” might mean something different to me, providing that nostalgia factor I get from late-’80s pop. But in listening through all of Plant’s albums from this decade, the cream rises quickly and clearly to the top. “Shaken ‘N’ Stirred” has the least of those songs from this period in his career.

Grade: C-

Favorite Track: “Little by Little”

Other Favorite Track: “Sixes and Sevens”

Least Favorite Track: “Too Loud”

Monday, October 25, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘The Honeydrippers: Volume One,’ Robert Plant (1984)

Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.

I ignored Robert Plant’s solo career for most of my life. If it didn’t have anything to do with Led Zeppelin, I didn’t want to have anything to do with him.

And then I heard “Raising Sand.” One of my favorite albums of all time, “Sand” sent me diving back into Plant’s work; I hadn’t heard much other than “In the Mood,” so I was hopeful there would be a few hidden gems I had no idea even existed.

“The Honeydrippers: Volume One” is one of those.

Playing with an all-star cast that includes Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, Plant embraces his inner Elvis fanboy with this painfully short five-song EP of shimmying ’50s-era rock and roll. A luscious cover of “Sea of Love” was the big hit from this outing, much in the same way Pearl Jam found unexpected success with “Last Kiss” back in 1999. But every song is great, most notably “Rockin’ at Midnight,” the R&B explosion that caps the disc.

My only complaint about this one and only Honeydrippers effort is the tantalizing title: Why tease us with “Volume One” if you’re not going to follow through? Plant would’ve been better served devoting more time to music like this than the schmaltz he delivered next, 1985’s “Shaken N Stirred.”

In a way, though, this disc foretold of greatness to come. It may have taken him 20 years, but Plant eventually came back to his roots in the new millennium with projects much like this. As he rediscovered the music he loves, he rediscovered his artistic vision, as well. The Honeydrippers were apparently a very early preview.

Grade: A

Favorite Track: “Rockin’ at Midnight”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘The Principle of Moments,’ Robert Plant (1983)

Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.

No matter what era it’s from, a great song is a great song. You know it, you get it, you feel it. Immediately. Robert Plant’s “In the Mood” is one of those songs.

From the murky slow build to that first jangly guitar phrase to the big drum intro to Plant’s silky-smooth vocal delivery, “In the Mood” works. Plant hardly even sings much more than “I’m in the mood for a melody” over the course of nearly five and a half minutes, and yet the cut is never boring. It has an identity, movement … it makes me reach for the volume button every time.

I know tracks like “In the Mood” don’t grow on some magical music tree, but it’s a shame Plant couldn’t deliver songs like it more consistently in this first phase of his post-Zeppelin career. Because there’s just not much else to “The Principle of Moments” to get overly excited about. The unfortunately titled “Big Log” is the other major highlight, with a memorable guitar melody that is strong enough to compensate for a drum pattern that sounds like it was created on one of those synthesizers they used to have in elementary school music rooms. Plant’s vocal is more forceful and confident here, too, in a purer way than much of the other solo work to this point. I don’t know if “Big Log” was ever used in a movie, but its stark presence seems tailor made for the silver screen.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. Opener “Other Arms” was a huge hit for Plant at the time but doesn’t hold up, sounding like a made-for-radio factory product of commercial studio players. “Horizontal Departure,” however, is a more honest hard-charging rocker that still licks and kicks today. “Messin’ with the Mekon” has an island influence more unfortunate than “D’yer Mak’er,” while “Thru’ with the Two Step” is an effective ballad, even if it does almost drown in stereotypical ’80s keyboards. “Wreckless Love” and “Stranger Here … Than Over There” make little impact positively or negatively.

So “The Principle of Moments” finds Plant fully divested from Led Zeppelin and transitioned to full-on pop/rock mode in the grand ’80s tradition: A couple great tracks, a couple dogs, and the rest easy-to-swallow filler. It’s less consistent than his solo debut, but is great when it’s good.

I have just one final question: Why was he so obsessed with reverb?

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “In the Mood”

Least Favorite Track: “Messin’ with the Mekon”

Monday, October 18, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Pictures at Eleven,’ Robert Plant (1982)

Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.

Much of Robert Plant’s first post-Led Zeppelin effort sounds, not surprisingly, like a Led Zeppelin album. Most of the songs included here remind of the over-produced latter-day Zep tracks, like they somehow got caught between the in and out doors.

One of the album’s best tracks, “Slow Dancer,” is a nearly eight-minute epic that comes across like a b-side combination of “Kashmir” and “For Your Life.” Opener “Burning Down One Side” is a dutiful cousin to “In the Evening,” while “Moonlight in Mamosa” is a (very) poor man’s attempt to recreate “The Rain Song.” The brightest spot is “Like I’ve Never Been Gone,” a hard-edged ballad with a twinkling guitar melody that recalls “All My Love.”

It’s easy to look back on these tracks nearly three decades later and dismiss them as subpar Zeppelin knockoffs. But if I put myself in the shoes of a Zep fan who just lost one of the greatest bands of all time, a collection like this probably would’ve felt like cool water in the desert. “Pictures at Eleven” is a darn good transition album for Plant, hinting at both his past and where he planned to go.

That’s the most unfortunate thing, though, because much of Plant’s production from the ’80s just wasn’t that good. Two songs in particular—“Pledge Pin” and “Fat Lip”—are examples of the shapeless, reverb-drenched, cheesy pop/rock filler that would dominate much of his immediate post-Zeppelin career. Luckily, though, those are exceptions rather than the rule on his sturdy solo debut.

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “Like I’ve Never Been Gone”

Least Favorite Track: “Pledge Pin”

Friday, October 08, 2010

‘The Social Network’: Defending Mark Zuckerberg

It’s been six days since I saw “The Social Network” … and I can’t stop thinking about it. That’s probably as good a reason as any to officially declare it my favorite movie of the year.

Jesse Eisenberg’s masterful portrayal of the (ironically) socially awkward Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is a fascinating examination of what it takes to literally change the world. Zuckerberg’s faults are also his strengths, and the filmmakers—director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin—deftly try not to make judgments one way or the other.

Did Zuckerberg steal the idea? The movie doesn’t tell you, but one of the best lines in the whole thing is from the main character: “If you’d invented Facebook … you’d have invented Facebook.” Did he screw over his one and only friend to get to the top? Or was his friend holding him back? Was the friend too timid for the big game Zuckerberg was playing, or did he have justifiable reasons for thinking along more practical terms? Again, it could be both.

And then there’s Sean Parker (played brilliantly by Justin Timberlake—you don’t know how hard it is for me to type that), the inventor of Napster, who swoops in during Facebook’s infancy and changes the course of all the lives involved, no matter how tangentially. He comes off as a reckless, arrogant blowhard, but would Facebook have reached the pinnacle of Internet domination without his connections, energy, and vision?

These are the tangled webs weaved by “The Social Network.” I will warn you: There are no answers (it reminds me of Fincher’s superb “Zodiac” in that way—minus all the dead bodies, of course). But that’s because there really aren’t any answers to be had yet. The real-life Zuckerberg is still just 26 years old and now one of the youngest billionaires on the planet; his story is probably far from over, and we certainly can’t have all that much perspective on his rise to power and fame while we’re still living in the moment he created one drunken night at Harvard.

In the end I liked Zuckerberg as portrayed here—how truthful a telling is obviously up for debate, but that’s rather beside my point. He was a Rand-ian visionary who wasn’t afraid of his own genius or putting it to work. His singleminded dedication to his craft is probably indicative of every successful entrepreneur. Does that make him a saint? No. Not even really a nice person. I’m sure there are certain decisions of interpersonal relations he’d rather take back (but maybe not). But one thing you can say about Zuckerberg is he never hid his ambitions, and it’s people like him who really do change the world. Those who weren’t fully committed to the grand goal he was chasing were eventually left behind … with millions and millions of dollars to comfort them.

Grade: A

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Catching a Tiger,’ Lissie (2010)

Now, this girl can sing. Too bad she hides that fact a little too much on her first full-length album.

Lissie’s (a.k.a. Elisabeth Maurus) debut, the five-song “Where You Runnin’” EP from last year, is a stark, captivating masterpiece. Three of those minimalist tracks are included here, but they actually sound out of place on an album whose remaining tracks are altogether ordinary, sugary, generic pop ditties in the vein of Lily Allen, Katy Perry, et. al.

It’s not that they’re bad, necessarily, I just found myself asking … why? Why would she screw up something as great as the gripping, cavernous power-folk of her EP to delve into over-produced genre stuff like everyone else? Lissie's voice still shines, but she doesn’t make these tracks her own in the way, say, Florence Welch did last year on her spectacular debut. Whereas Welch soars above these conventions and makes them her own, Lissie seems happily awash in made-for-radio track like “When I’m Alone” or “Cuckoo”; it’s nice enough while you’re listening to it, with those by-the-book background vocals and whatever, but easily forgotten. Every new song on “Tiger” left me thinking, “Where have I heard this before?” Her debut work on “Runnin’,” on the other hand, left an indelible impression.

The three EP tracks—“Little Lovin’,” “Everywhere I Go,” and “Oh Mississippi”—provide a tantalizing glimpse of what Lissie is capable of. When she hits those high notes in “Everywhere” … incredible. The album as a whole is anything but. “Catching a Tiger” is a nice, safe, enjoyable pop record … but, sadly, nothing more. And, thus, a rather large disappointment.

Grade: C+

Favorite Track: “Everywhere I Go”

Least Favorite Track: “In Sleep” (for the by-the-book guitar solo outro, if nothing else)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Good Morning, Magpie,’ Murder By Death (2010)

Murder By Death’s new album is nothing like what I expected, and that’s a very good thing I’ve decided.

Their last effort, 2008’s “Red of Tooth and Claw,” was one of my favorite albums of the millennium’s first decade with its taut, aggressive cowboy rock. “Good Morning, Magpie,” on the other hand, is full of a bunch of loose, easygoing songs meant to be sung around a dying campfire in the middle of a desert. It’s more country than rock, but in a weird way manages to incorporate elements of swing that continue to remind me of the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Frontman Adam Turla’s voice is as supple as ever, channeling his Johnny Cash-meets-Days of the New more than ever here, since he’s really singing these shambling ditties rather than howling over the fiendish entries from “Claw.” One thing that hasn’t changed is his macabre subject matter. He can be darkly funny—“You Don’t Miss Twice (When You’re Shaving with a Knife),” “As Long as There Is Whiskey in the World”—or just dark—ahem, “On the Dark Streets Below”—but either way these are dustbowl anthems of the best kind.

No writeup of Murder By Death is complete, though, without mentioning cellist Sarah Balliet, who perhaps benefits the most from the softer tones of “Magpie” that allow her distinct talent and instrument to take an even stronger role than before. Balliet is the linchpin of this group; her strings complete the aura of Murder By Death and make the band stand out from its peers.

So “Magpie” isn’t as quite as accessible as the last record but rewards repeated listens. It’s an excellent change of pace, and one I’ve grown to enjoy more and more with every spin. And tacked on as if to remind us all they still know how to bring the heat, MBD close the record with “The Day,” an epic throwback that thunders with apocalyptic malevolence—an excellent end to a fine effort.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “The Day”

Least Favorite Track: “Piece By Piece”