Friday, November 25, 2011

The Music of 2011

You could’ve given me 50 options for who I thought would be my favorite musician of 2011 and I would never have come close to guessing Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver. The bearded wonder symbolizes everything I’ve come to loathe about indie music. Or so I thought. The story of Vernon’s first album, where he poured his heart out after a bad breakup while sequestered in a Wisconsin cabin, just seemed way too precious for my tastes. 

But Vernon has a tougher edge to him than I gave him credit for, despite the falsetto. This year I’ve bought just about every Bon Iver track ever released (which, admittedly, isn’t much), and the band’s dominated my year like no other. I have no idea what Vernon’s singing most of the time, and it really doesn’t matter. He has a way of evoking emotion just the way he delivers his music. It’s addictive, challenging, and, ultimately, rewarding work.

Honorable Mentions
The Avett Brothers
Brian Fallon
Florence + the Machine
Dave Hause
John Mark McMillan
My Morning Jacket
Chuck Ragan

ALBUM OF THE YEAR: “Bon Iver,” Bon Iver (2011)
I undervalued this album when I reviewed it earlier this year. I was probably just looking for an out so as not to seem like a sucker for giving yet another glowing review to one of the most acclaimed releases of the year. My main complaint—that the middle trio of songs drags the album down—has been eradicated. Instead, I hear in “Bon Iver” a kind rock symphony, where groups of songs hang together in distinct movements. The first four tracks offer a breadth and scope of sound that continue to reward repeated listens; the middle complements all that earlier bombast like a deep breath; and then the final trio blends together with cathartic fire and releases you into the night. 

Sometimes albums just grab you, and that’s what “Bon Iver” did for me in 2011. I didn’t expect it, and secretly didn’t even want it to happen. But I’ve returned to this disc over and over and over again this year. It works just as well on a breezy summer night as it does on a foggy, rainy, afternoon in November. Like The National’s Matt Berninger, Vernon provides snatches of imagery that stick with you, like “Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright.” “Bon Iver” is packed with moments like these.

Some of my all-time favorite artists released new albums this year, and each one I thought would replace “Bon Iver” as my favorite—or so I hoped. But none did. And so I’m left to admit that, much to my own annoyance, Bon Iver won a new convert this year.

Honorable Mentions
“Circuital,” My Morning Jacket
“Covering Ground,” Chuck Ragan
“Elsie,” The Horrible Crowes
“Going Out in Style,” Dropkick Murphys
“iTunes Session,” The Gaslight Anthem
“The Medicine,” John Mark McMillan (2010)
“Paper Airplane,” Alison Krauss & Union Station
“Resolutions,” Dave Hause
“Rome,” Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi
“Ukulele Songs,” Eddie Vedder

SONG OF THE YEAR: “Perth,” Bon Iver (from 2011’s “Bon Iver”)
This was a tough year for me on a number of fronts, yet one I’m better for having lived through. “Perth” sums that feeling up perfectly. It opens with plaintive, barely audible guitar and then steadily adds more pieces—and more volume—until it absolutely explodes into a percussive extravaganza 2 minutes 32 seconds in. This is my single favorite moment of any song this year, and it is the sole reason why I bought “Bon Iver” in the first place.

Vernon’s lyrics are nearly indecipherable on the album, and reading them often leads to just more confusion about what this guy is actually trying to say. But the chorus (if you can call it that) in “Perth” embodies the mixed bag that was my 2011. “Still alive for you, love,” to me, is a statement of honest hope, which is what I’m always looking for. That line admits that there’s been pain to bear—otherwise why would you need such reassurance in the first place? But there’s a dogged determination to it, an intentional optimism. This, in essence, is how I try to live my life: I have no patience for people who live in a bubble, yet I also have no tolerance for those who refuse to try for something more, something better, something greater. 

That’s a lot to read into one line, I know, but favorite songs have a way of doing that for me. Here are some more …

“Art of Almost,” Wilco (from 2011’s “The Whole Love”)
This seven-minute epic opener to Wilco’s latest album summarizes everything I hope the band can be in its latter days. It finds the perfect balance between Wilco’s various shades, while pressing through to new ground at the same time. There are too many layers to unpack here, but this is a strong Song of the Year contender … just a brilliant piece of work that I love, love, love. From Nels Cline’s fiery solo to Glenn Kotche’s superb percussion to Jeff Tweedy’s recapturing of his sense of adventure and melody, it’s the type of track you hope a band still has the energy and vision and balls to create as they grow older. Too bad the rest of “The Whole Love” wasn’t nearly as good. 

“Baba O’Riley,” The Gaslight Anthem (from 2011’s iTunes Session)
My new favorite cover of this Who classic. Every band member is pitch-perfect here, but special shout out to Alex Levine for his sick bass work in the final minute. 

“Balthazar, Impresario,” Frank Turner (from 2011’s “England Keep My Bones”)
Tough call here picking a favorite from Turner’s excellent new album, but this acoustic bonus track paints such a beautiful picture of a musician making his last, unheralded stand, it wins out. 

“Barton Hollow,” The Civil Wars (from 2011’s “Barton Hollow”)
You know the music that plays during the commercials and credits for “Justified” (my favorite show on TV)? Yeah, this is like that, minus the rapping. Incredible song. Just wish there had been more of this and less mopey Swell Season ripoffs on the rest of the album.

“Behold the Hurricane,” The Horrible Crowes (from 2011’s “Elsie”)
OK, so Brian Fallon’s side project didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Nevertheless, he still delivered three outstanding tracks on that album that I find it impossible to choose one over the other, so I’m going with all three. This is the purest “Gaslight”-type track on the record, and it’ll leave you humming the melody long after the music stops.

“Biloxi Parish,” The Gaslight Anthem (unreleased track debuted live in 2011)
Yes, my favorite songwriter on the planet is gonna pop up a lot on this list. Deal with it. This new cut takes Gaslight in yet another new direction, with its crunchy riff providing the most classic-rock Anthem in the band’s young catalog. 

“Black Betty & the Moon,” The Horrible Crowes (from 2011’s “Elsie”)
When I first heard Brian Fallon was taking a break from Gaslight to make “nighttime music,” I had no idea what to expect. But somehow when I first heard this tremendous lounge-y number it was exactly what I wanted from the project, without knowing how to articulate it. Fallon is forceful but subtle, singing right in the sweet spot of his range about a tale of a woman who allowed the world to change who she is into what she thinks people want her to be. “Black Betty,” at just 3 minutes flat, is one of the best songs Fallon’s ever written.

“Carolina Tide,” John Mark McMillan (from 2010’s “The Medicine”)
If I could write a song, I’d hope it would come out something like John Mark McMillan, a Christian guy who sounds like he grew up listening to Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, and Tom Petty and found a way to infuse those influences with his own faith. I came across “The Medicine” a year later, but it instantly became one of my favorite albums of recent years. This is exactly what Christian musicians should aspire to be. There are any number of choice cuts from this album (which can’t be said, unfortunately, from his new record that came out this year), but “Carolina Tide” wins because I love the central image of going to the beach to try and rid yourself of guilt and come back a refreshed, reclaimed person.

“Cready Stomp,” Pearl Jam (from 2011’s “Vs./“Vitalogy” re-issue)
How did this incredible demo jam never become a full-fledged Pearl Jam track?!?! This is one of the hardest-rocking cuts the band’s ever written; so tough, in fact, it actually sounds more like Soundgarden than “classic” Pearl Jam. I’m mystified and annoyed that Eddie Vedder never put lyrics to this piece, because just imagining his voice soaring above this maelstrom gives me a little bit of the chills. Argh …

“Dirty Rain,” Ryan Adams (from 2011’s “Ashes & Fire”)
Adams’ first album in three years isn’t quite the comeback I was hoping for—a bit too much of the same droopiness throughout—but this album-opening track reminds me why I’ve followed this mercurial man for a decade through all his various shape shifts. This stripped-down country/blues is straight outta “Heartbreaker” awesomeness. It’s Adams at his very best.

“Discoverer,” R.E.M. (from 2011’s “Collapse Into Now”)
R.E.M. called it quits this year, but before they left the trio dropped one more classic on us. I’ve never been a big fan of the band, but this is certainly my favorite type of R.E.M. track. Soaring chorus, catchy melody, a tough edge but still poppy, and chiming guitars. Nice job here, boys. 

“Give It Up,” Gangstagrass (2011)
Did I mention “Justified” is my favorite show on TV? Yeah, any song associated with that series is likely gonna show up on this list. This one was used in the Season 2 promos.

“Houses of the Holy,” Led Zeppelin (from 1975’s “Physical Graffiti,” as performed live at Constitution Hall on 2.1.11 by Robert Plant and the Band of Joy)
This has never been one of my go-to Zep tracks, but Plant’s slowed-down, country-fied re-imagining turns it into a masterpiece. 

“Into the Mystic,” Van Morrison (from 1970’s “Moondance”)
Tony Kornheiser calls this the greatest single song ever written. After giving it a good many listens this year, I can’t say I exactly agree with him … but I definitely see where he’s coming from. Gorgeous stuff. 

“Ladykiller,” The Horrible Crowes (from 2011’s “Elsie”)
Fallon reached out to his full range of influences for this album, so it should come as no surprise that Springsteen pops up. Only this is the “Tunnel of Love” version, which is a surprise. This song is so smooth. It fits Fallon’s voice wonderfully. 

“Lay My Burden Down,” Alison Krauss & Union Station (from 2011’s “Paper Airplane”)
You know why Alison Krauss and Robert Plant were so great together? Because they’re both just great. Plant was the first to get an album out following the duo’s one-off Grammy-winning duet from 2007, but Krauss more than held her own with this outstanding effort back with her old mates from Union Station. Krauss has the voice of an angel, and nowhere on the new album is that quality more apparent than here.

“Lost in the World,” Kanye West (from 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”)
Kanye West’s latest solo album—like all of his work—is massively overrated. But sampling Bon Iver’s little-known “Woods” and spinning it into this big-beat manifesto was pure genius. 

“Meet You in the Middle,” Chuck Ragan (from 2011’s “Covering Ground”)
Ragan’s ode to life on the road is one of my favorite records of the year, offering innumerable choice tracks. This one gets the nod for prominently featuring—who else?—Brian Fallon. Do yourself a favor and go find this album. Ragan is so intense, you probably won’t even notice he’s playing punk rock on acoustic guitar and violin with no percussion. His Leonidas roar voice fills all the empty gaps.

“Murder in the City,” The Avett Brothers (from 2006’s “The Second Gleam,” as performed live on 2.18.11 at Constitution Hall)
There could’ve been no better way for the Avetts to open their first show after a game-changing performance at the Grammys than this tender track about the love only a family can provide. One of four brothers, the line about their father’s love sticks out to me, in particular. But moreover this was a statement by the Avetts that no matter how much success they experience, their core will remain the same. 

“No Weather,” Brian Fallon (from 2011’s Revival Tour compilation)
Fallon had himself quite a year for having no official Gaslight releases. This song was contributed to a comp heralding his tour of Europe with Chuck Ragan and Dave Hause, and the acoustic country stomper is a stirring reminder of the breadth of his musical range. 

“Peg O’ My Heart,” Dropkick Murphys (from 2011’s “Going Out in Style”)
This light-hearted rocker probably would’ve been on this list even without Springsteen’s guest spot. The Boss’ invigorating cameo just makes it that much easier to select from all the other excellent tracks on this record.

“Pray for Tuscon,” Dave Hause (from 2011’s “Resolutions”)
I first heard this song way back in January 2010 when Hause opened for Brian Fallon at the Black Cat, and I was absolutely blown away. It took another year for the Loved Ones frontman to officially release his first solo album, but it was well worth the wait. “Resolutions” came out just two weeks after the horrible shooting spree in Arizona, and “Pray for Tuscon” instantly took on a higher meaning. A Song of the Year contender, for sure.

“Saints and Sinners,” Flogging Molly (from 2011’s “Speed of Darkness”)
Flogging Molly haven’t released a truly great record in nearly a decade, but each time out they seem to manage one or two cuts that recall their former unhinged, unabashed glory. This is one. 

“Season’s Trees,” Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi (from 2011’s “Rome”)
When I first heard Danger Mouse was working on a faux Spaghetti Western soundtrack with songs featuring Jack White, the mention of Norah Jones’ involvement in the project was merely an afterthought. Well, turns out she outshines White on the album, especially here in a song destined more for a Tarantino movie than a Western. 

“Shake It Off,” Florence + the Machine (from 2011’s “Cermonials”)
Flo’s hit HUGE in the two years since releasing her debut album, “Lungs,” and that may have gone to her head a bit. The new album is a much more somber affair than the charming kitchen-sink mentality of her first effort. “Shake It Off” is Florence at her bombastic best, though, rattling windows with her clarion call of a voice soaring over top of a nu-gospel sound. 
“Skinny Love,” Bon Iver (from 2008’s “For Emma, Forever Ago”)
So when I went down the rabbit hole this year on Bon Iver, this is one of several standout tracks I discovered (go find his “Blood Bank” EP on iTunes, btw). It’s harder and tougher than you’d think this guy could and should be, bringing in a bit of acoustic Zeppelin flair. It’s also one of the tracks where he doesn’t employ his trademark falsetto, and I wish he’d do that more often.
“Staircase,” Radiohead (from 2011’s “From the Basement” session)
It started with “15 Step” from “In Rainbows,” but “Staircase” is the song that finally made me, if not a Radiohead fan, then at least a secret admirer. I’ve never denied the band’s talent; it’s merely Thom Yorke’s dying-cow voice I haven’t been able to abide (and stlll cannot, for the most part). He tones that down here, though, making room for Radiohead’s incredible rhythm section—my favorite element of the band, here boosted by Robert Plant’s drummer on a second kit. “Staircase” is the kind of song U2 tries to write when they want to sound cool; Radiohead, on the other hand, seems able to toss off cuts like this effortlessly. 

“Victory Dance,” My Morning Jacket (from 2011’s “Circuital”)
For as seminal a band as Pink Floyd is, you don’t often hear them referenced as a benchmark for newer acts. That’s probably a testament to how unique Floyd truly was. But My Morning Jacket’s dark, swirling, ethereal opening track to their outstanding new album comes as close to evoking Floyd’s sound as any band I’ve heard in recent memory, albeit with a touch of The Grateful Dead thrown in for good measure. This song will haunt your dreams. 

“You’re True,” Eddie Vedder (from 2011’s “Ukulele Songs”)
You gotta hand it to Mr. Vedder for sticking with it. When I first heard he was releasing an album of only songs featuring the tiny instrument, I figured it would either suck or be totally great. Thankfully, perhaps surprisingly, the result is the latter. Vedder’s obsession with an instrument most people think of as a joke is just one more reason why I can’t help but love the guy. And he gets more out of it than probably anyone in history ever has.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

EP of the Day: The Gaslight Anthem’s iTunes Session (2011)

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you sure can judge a band by one. Who and what a musician chooses to cover says a lot.

Just about all of my all-time favorite bands are great at playing other people’s songs—it's a sign of respect, humility, integrity, and sense of history. Johnny Cash introduced himself to an entirely new generation of fans with his series of American recordings; Pearl Jam essentially retains ownership of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” by this point; Bruce Springsteen’s “Stump the E Street Band” segments on tour are absolutely insane; and have you ever heard The White Stripes’ version of “Jolene”? About the only band I love that sucks at covers is U2.

The Gaslight Anthem make no bones about their musical influences, so it should come as no surprise that just about every set they play includes at least one choice cover. But until now you’d only be able to hear those selections live in concert or on an audience bootleg. This month, though, they released an “iTunes Session,” which is a collection of seven songs recorded live in a studio. It consists of four covers, two original Gaslight songs so reworked they may as well be covers, and one track, “Our Fathers Sons,” that doesn’t appear on any of the band’s previous releases.

The covers are, in a word, amazing. The set opens with the pipe bomb of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”—well, in reality it’s more like Gaslight covering Pearl Jam’s version of the song. No keyboards here. This may be blasphemy but I think TGA have outdone their predecessors here and delivered the best “Baba” cover I’ve ever heard. Their replication of the core synth riff on guitar is outstandingly crisp, and drummer Benny Horowitz thunders away on drums like a man possessed by the natural charisma of Keith Moon. When frontman Brian Fallon unleashes those unmistakable first words, “Out here in the fields,” magic happens. I saw Gaslight perform this song last summer in Columbus and was blown away by it; you have to have guts way down deep to take on this icon of rock and roll. They killed it then, and they conquer it here.

As if “Baba” wasn’t enough, Gaslight rolls right into spectacular versions of Tom Petty’s “Refugee” and Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust.” Both of these tracks are performed with the attention to detail only an obsessive fan could bring to the table—right down to Fallon chipping in with Eddie Vedder’s “yeah, yeah” at just the right moment.

And yet these tracks don’t feel like mere play-by-numbers affairs, either. Perhaps it comes down to Fallon’s charcoal growl, but these are unmistakably Gaslight Anthem efforts. There’s a verve and vigor to them, a spirit of unabashed, honest fervor that infuses everything the band touches. The only cut on the whole EP I could do without is the version of “House of the Rising Sun”—not because they don’t do an excellent job, but I just don’t care much for that song and it doesn’t play to their strengths (too slow, too heavy). I’d much rather have an official version of Hot Water Music’s “Trusty Chords.”

The remaining three songs are nearly just as good. “Boxer” is one of the hardest rockers from Gaslight’s last album, only here it’s given a stripped-down, country treatment that works surprisingly well (the mark of great songwriting, I say). “The Navesink Banks,” meanwhile, is a Gaslight icon from their first album, 2007’s “Sink or Swim”; here it’s given the heavier interpretation previously only heard in the live setting—electric guitars and pounding drums on the outro that give it a more potent feel.

The remaining track, “Our Fathers Sons,” is an outtake from the band’s breakthrough record, 2008’s “The ’59 Sound.” It has a bit of a Johnny Cash vibe and sounds like it came from the same jam session that spawned “Here’s Looking at You, Kid.” “Sons” just goes to show what a monster that album was if this little gem couldn’t make the cut. It feels like home.

This band is at yet another crossroads in its relatively short life. They just signed to Mercury Records and are in the process of writing and recording their next album, due in 2012. A little release like this gives me confidence that no matter how things might change for The Gaslight Anthem, the things I love about them stay the same.

Grade: A-
Favorite Track: “Baba O’Riley”
Least Favorite Track: “House of the Rising Sun”

Go buy it here

Friday, September 23, 2011

CD of the Day: ‘Elsie,’ The Horrible Crowes (2011)

I’m most drawn to musicians who are like me in one very specific way: They’re music fans, too. They’re passionate about it. They understand the obsessive mania of setlist craft and b-sides and cover choices and … all that geeky stuff. Some pay homage to their influences more obviously than others, but nobody wears their heroes’ tattoos on their sleeves more openly and proudly than Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem. 

Many of those favorites perfectly fit his band’s brand of classically tinged power punk. The Clash … Social Distortion … that guy with the one-letter band name. Fallon’s new side project, The Horrible Crowes, is a place to vent all the rest. 

The closest thing to a Gaslight track on “Elsie” is “Behold the Hurricane,” the most uptempo, pure rock-and-roll moment on the album. And it is a winner, probably thanks in no small part to the fact that TGA guitarist Alex Rosamila appears on the cut. After that, though, there are no boundaries for THC, as Fallon dips into his bag of songwriter tricks from the likes of Greg Dulli, Tom Waits, and a smattering of other “dark” influences. The songs still sound like Brian Fallon songs, just filtered through a different amp.

“Sugar” sets the album’s tone perfectly with its murky, understated concoction of hushed vocals and restrained instrumentation all punctuated with choruses of sunlight. “Ladykiller” is the shining centerpiece of the record; I swore I wouldn’t mention Springsteen but this fantastic, breezily midtempo track just begs to be compared to anything off “Tunnel of Love” (“One Step Up,” in particular). My goodness this cut goes down smooth. “Cherry Blossoms” finds Fallon exploring his country/blues side, while funky “I Witnessed a Crime” is some sort of crazy organ-propelled speakeasy soul song. You ain’t gonna hear anything like this on a Gaslight album, that’s for sure. "Blood Loss," with its monster power chords and huge choruses, anchors the back of the record.

“Black Betty & the Moon” is my favorite song on the album. I love the whole package: the twinkling acoustic guitars, the minimalist arrangement, and, most especially, the melody that fits Fallon’s voice like a glove. Whatever range this is, he should never leave it. 

He puts the wraps on “Elsie” with the hypnotic chant of “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together.” Fallon said this album is meant to be heard all of a piece, and this is a demonstration of why; it’s a wonderful comedown of a track, easing you out of the listening experience with grace and a car’s ignition.

The biggest problem with “Elsie” is, ironically, Fallon himself. He’s simply too positive a guy to write his best work under these intentionally dark conditions. I attribute this in large part to his Christian faith—not that Christians don’t face dark times, certainly, but we are imbued with hope and light everlasting, and that doesn’t fit too well with super-sadsack songs. What separates Fallon’s work with Gaslight from other lyricists is his ability not just to empathize with the downtrodden but to offer them a way out of their misery. He doesn’t sound at home in his own skin here, which was sorta the point, I guess, but that doesn’t make it great. The songs are lyrically dense with snatches of memorable lines, but it’s difficult to add them all up and get a sense for what they're trying to say unless you sit with headphones and the liner notes in your hands for multiple listens. The overall theme of the record is clear enough—the dissolution of a relationship in the most painful way possible—but in specifics, Fallon's never been this intentionally obtuse. I respect the artistry on display, but from a lyrical perspective “Elsie” doesn’t leave me with songs to cherish and absorb and make a part of my life the way previous Fallon work has. It’s just too depressing.

What’s more, Fallon stretches his voice to the breaking point too many times, and it comes off as unnaturally strained—like at times he’s trying too hard to sound desperate. For anyone familiar with the high note he hits on Gaslight’s “The Diamond Church Street Choir,” imagine that stretched out over multiple songs. I’m thinking specifically of tracks like “Go Tell Everybody,” “Crush,” and “Mary Ann.” Musically, there’s not a bad entry on “Elsie,” but Fallon’s delivery doesn’t work every single time. 

I’d much rather fault a guy for trying too hard than not trying at all. This is the type of album I reserve the right to change my mind about in a week or a year’s time. And in the end, “Elsie”—with its warts and winners—is the latest example of why Brian Fallon is my favorite songwriter on the planet.

Grade: B
Favorite Track: “Black Betty & the Moon”
Least Favorite Track: “Go Tell Everybody”

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Review of the Day: ‘Natural Disaster,’ Greg Attonito (2011)

Over the course of two-plus decades, The Bouncing Souls have shown us how a punk band can and should grow up gracefully. Their most recent releases—2006’s “The Gold Record” and 2010’s “Ghosts on the Boardwalk”—are arguably the best of their career, delivered as these New Jersey misfits hit middle age. They succeeded by never losing their youthful vigor, even as it was tempered by maturity. Frontman Greg Attonito has spent his entire life writing and singing about his central themes of love, loyalty, friendship, and a sense of community that can make a difference.

His bandmates’ jaunty riffs and boundless energy are key to making those ideas not seem trite and rote. Unfortunately, when you take the Souls out of the equation, the flaws in Attonito’s game are glaring.

His new solo EP is aptly titled. It’s a mess—offering blink-and-you've-forgotten-them melodies riddled with cringe-worthy lyrics that—not buoyed by the Souls’ effervescent sound—come across mostly like the scribbles of a moony teenager in his first creative writing class. “I love you … your voice … your scent,” drones “Cincinnati Dream”; “I wanna see the colors of my soul/I wanna break the boundary of rock and roll,” opines “Teardrops”; opener “How Many Songs” (which musically tries way too hard to be “interesting”) naively reiterates the tired notion that a love song can “change the world all over.”

But by far the worst is “Sexiest Girl,” which opens, “The sexiest girl in the world is you, it’s true.” More embarrassingly awful couplets ensue that I refuse to print here. It’s one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.

The remaining two tracks save “Natural Disaster” from being just that. “Volcano” is a nice acoustic ditty that could’ve fit on the “Juno” soundtrack and gets bonus points for incorporating a muted trumpet. Country ballad “Eyes,” meanwhile, is easily the best cut on the EP and the only one I can recommend from this release with no hesitation. It’s wonderfully soulful and sweet (in a good way).

I give Attonito credit for trying, I guess, but “Natural Disaster” merely reiterates how perfectly the Souls’ talents complement one another. Because it didn't quite bother me until now, but the band's frontman has been saying the same thing for a really long time.

Grade: D+

Favorite Track: “Eyes”

Least Favorite Track: “Sexiest Girl”

Monday, July 04, 2011

CD of the Day: ‘Bon Iver,’ Bon Iver (2011)

Bon Iver symbolizes everything I’ve grown to despise about indie music. From the restrained (some might say precious) falsetto vocals right down to the bushy, unkempt beard that is a requirement of the scene. I even bristle at the pretentious way you’re supposed to say the name (it’s pronounced “bone e-vair").

So why is it I’ve been listening to this album so much? It starts with a drum part.

“Bon Iver” opens with a plaintive guitar melody as intro to first song “Perth.” A backing choir slides into the song next, followed by a muted military snare cadence. Justin Vernon (the actual “Bon Iver”) sneaks in next, adding his nearly indecipherable high-pitched, yet warm voice. The music swells and ebbs like a wave, adding bits and pieces of other little sounds until, at 2:32, this monstrous drum pattern explodes into the mix, pounding away like indie Metallica. There are no lyrics the rest of the way, but a horn section joins the fray. By the last burst of sound, you have one of my favorite songs of the year.

That drum part, which lasts less than two minutes, unlocked this whole album for me. I’m not as enthralled with the rest of “Bon Iver” as I am of “Perth,” but that’s not to say there aren’t some fine moments. “Minnesota, WI” has some funky elements that remind me of TV on the Radio, while “Holocene” is another slow-building acoustic gem. Lead single “Calgary” aptly summarizes the entire album with its lush, heavy synth-and-percussion arrangement (even if it does sound uncomfortably too close to Coldplay in the first few bars), and “Towers” bounces along like the best song Tom Petty never sang in falsetto. I don’t even mind the Peter Cetera-style closer, “Beth/Rest,” which so many critics seem to revile (but maybe that’s just because I like Peter Cetera).

I lose patience with the middle trio of songs, though. "Michicant" and "Wash" are decent, but "Hinnom, TX" kinda sounds like Jemaine Clement doing David Bowie. Together, these three slow tracks bog down the middle of the record terribly.

“Bon Iver” is challenging work that sets a definite mood. It’s the type of music you don’t put on just for background noise; like The National, it's great for driving by yourself on a dark night. My guess is you’ll either really like it or really, really won’t. Before I ever heard it, I certainly would’ve put myself in the latter category. And I would’ve missed out on one of my favorite albums of the year.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “Perth”

Least Favorite Track: “Hinnom, TX”

Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Favorite Movies of 2010

In honor of tonight’s Academy Awards, let’s all put 2010 to bed. I’ll do my part here with my favorite films from last year:

9. The Town

Ben Affleck, where you been all my life? This guy is undergoing a career resuscitation the likes of which are rarely seen. First, his sparkling directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone,” and now this, a tense thriller that is worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as “Heat.” And, man, Jeremy Renner is must-see viewing once again.

7. The Fighter/True Grit

These are listed together because they both left me feeling the same way: They’re both solid genre films with excellent performances, but neither raises to the level of truly “great.” That’s not a knock on them, either. It’s just we’ve seen the boxer/Western before; making a film that doesn’t just parrot the genre is an achievement in itself, and these are both excellent examples of well-worn areas. But neither rose above their respective worlds to set themselves apart.

6. The A-Team

This is where I remind you, this is not a “best of” list, but rather a ranking purely on favortism. “The A-Team” is not a better movie than those listed above it, but it was such a pleasure to watch. This should’ve been a bigger hit than it was. The casting is the key: the four leads—Neeson, especially—take their roles seriously and give the film a gravitas most stupid action movies lack. It helps, of course, they have a great script to work with, packed with one-liners that leave you chuckling long after the credits roll. Pure fun, this one.

5. Inception

I didn’t actually love this movie; the gotcha ending was extraordinarily irritating. But I rank it this high because it was so fascinating. Christopher Nolan has a singular vision, and he’s the only director working in Hollywood today who could’ve pulled this off—the Spielberg of this generation. We always complain about not seeing anything original in the Cineplex … well, you certainly can’t make that claim here. Nolan twisted our minds and our senses into pretzels this summer, and irritating ending or not, it left us all talking afterward. That, alone, is a worthy achievement. Add the stunning visuals and whirlpool storytelling, and “Inception” is one I think we’ll still be talking about a decade from now.

4. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows—Part 1

Director David Yates pulled off a magic trick of his own with this one, somehow making J.K. Rowling’s complex mythology (confusing even when reading her novel) understandable. And along the way, he made a movie with the heart and soul of an indie wrapped in the budget and trappings of a blockbuster franchise. Not many directors would take the time in a production like this to allow for one of its best scenes: Harry and Hermione’s dance in the darkest of nights. The best installment yet of this series, “Deathly Hallows—Part 1” will go down as “The Empire Strikes Back” of the Potter films.

3. Get Low

The most underappreciated, underrated film of 2010. Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, and Lucas Black (you know, the kid from “Sling Blade”) all give outstanding performances in this story of love, betrayal, guilt, and redemption. It starts out as an offbeat comedy about a man planning his own funeral, and then in Act 3 morphs into a touching tale of a man in search of forgiveness for a sin he’s carried with him for far too long.

2. Toy Story 3

If asked a different day, this may be my favorite film of last year. A true masterpiece, Pixar somehow managed to top itself yet again in its signature franchise. Laugh-out-loud funny, edge-of-your-seat exciting, jaw-droppingly imaginative (toys as mafiosos!), and an ending that can make grown men cry … this is a tremendous film for all ages. Its message of looking to the future and not clinging to the past is one to live by.

1. The Social Network

A portrait of an online artist as a young man, this fascinating and gripping tale of Facebook creator (?) Mark Zuckerberg left me pondering for days what the cost of fame, wealth, and success. Aaron Sorkin (though I loathe him personally) delivers the crowning achievement of his career with a script that deftly weaves what is essentially two legal proceedings into a spellbinding narrative. Add the sure hand of director David Fincher, a career-defining performance from Jesse Eisenberg, and the fact “The Social Network” left me puzzling over its revelations for days, and that all adds up to my favorite film of 2010.


A Note About ‘The King’s Speech’

I understand why this film earned so much critical acclaim and so many nominations, but it left me feeling too cold to make this list. Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter are all outstanding, but Firth’s character is a little hard to root for. I hope it doesn’t win tonight.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Ah, I had such hopes for this movie. “Taken” is one of my favorite films of the past five years, so the idea of Liam Neeson stomping around Europe again in another leather jacket had me looking forward to another go-round. Heck, it even has an abrupt, one-word title!

This is why the marketing people at Warner Bros. make so much money, because I’m sure there were thousands and thousands just like me who went out to see this dreck based on those same warm, fuzzy “Taken” feelings. Unfortunately, the similarities end just about there.

“Unknown” is like a combination of “Taken,” “The Bourne Identity,” and “The Fugitive”—with all the bad clich├ęs and none of the smarts and wit of those three far superior films. The story starts off quite well, with Neeson as a biologist in Berlin for a big conference who gets into a car accident and has his brain rattled (hello, Mr. Bourne). So he then tries to piece his life back together and prove he is who and what he says he is (hello, Dr. Kimble). All the while, he’s dodging shady people in dark SUVs trying to capture and/or kill him. Why on earth is this happening to him? That’s actually a very intriguing question that Neeson handles with the grace and charm you love him for.

It all starts to unravel, though, right around the time Neeson escapes his stalkers via an obligatory car chase through the streets of Berlin (not a cop car in sight!). There is no way a middle-aged scientist should be able to drive like that, and it’s the first hint all is not what it seems in “Unknown.”

Ever since “Taken” was so resoundingly embraced by conservatives for its strike-first-strike-hard-no-mercy-sir! attitude toward bad guys, I think Neeson’s been scrambling to resuscitate his liberal cred. First he said C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels weren’t strictly Christian stories (please!). And now he stars in a movie where a poor, plucky, working-two-jobs-to-get-by illegal immigrant plays a critical heroic role, all the while an American government/big business complex tries to steal an agricultural development that would, of course, feed the poor around the globe for free. Can't have that! Give me a break. It’s all so stereotypical, unoriginal, and, worst of all, boring.

It’s no surprise that “Unknown” veers dramatically off course as soon as these ideological elements begin to make themselves clear. The third act is so stupid—with dialogue to match (this movie even makes January Jones sound terrible)—people in my screening were laughing. And not in a good way. I just rolled my eyes and got the heck out of there.

At least I’ll always have “Taken.” Maybe I’ll go watch that again to get the taste of this disaster out of my mouth.

Grade: D+

Saturday, February 19, 2011

'This Is Where the Fun Begins': The Avett Brothers, Live in D.C., 2.18.11

Sunday night’s Grammy performance was a big one for The Avett Brothers, perhaps the most important five minutes of their career. Paired with Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons, these good ol’ boys from North Carolina were one of the most buzzed-about groups both before and after the show aired, exposing them to millions and millions of people who I’m sure had never heard their brand of bluegrass/folk/country/punk/rock before. Even Tony Kornheiser gave them a shoutout on his TV show, “Pardon the Interruption.”

They didn’t directly address the Grammys during their show Friday night at D.C.’s soldout Constitution Hall (their first gig since), but they let their songs do the talking. I believe it is absolutely no accident they opened with “Murder in the City,” a gorgeous ballad off 2007’s “The Second Gleam” EP that features just Scott and Seth Avett, one guitar, one mic, and one spotlight. The key line goes like this:

A tear fell from my father’s eyes

I wondered what my dad would say

He said, “I love you and I’m proud of you both

In so many different ways.”

So, yeah, it’s only two minutes into a nearly two-hour show, and I already have goosebumps. There would be more.

The Avetts certainly show no signs of folding under the pressure of their burgeoning fame. Friday’s show sold out long before the Grammys, and Constitution Hall is the largest D.C. venue the brothers have headlined to this point. Their sound and stage presence is so assured, they definitely did not seem undersized for the room. The big, full-band moments exploded off the stage, while the quiet numbers were captivating.

The key, I think, is how authentic and genuine they are as they go about their business. These songs they play are too intense—be that intensely emotional or intensely fun—to just go through the motions. And it’s not like this is some outsized rock outfit that can rely on squalling guitars for support: They go up there with an acoustic guitar, banjo, cello, stand-up bass, and occasional drumkit and piano and just let fly. At the end of “Kick Drum Heart,” for example, Seth did something I’ve never seen before: to punctuate the heartbeat drum cadence at the end of the song, he walked back to their stage drape and started hitting it in time with the kick drum, causing the whole thing to flutter like a heartbeat. At another point he climbed on top of their gear boxes at stage right—almost into the laps of the people in the box seats—to lead a crowd singalong. As is his practice, meanwhile, Scott broke a banjo string rather early in the show (see start of "Paranoia" video below).

I’ve only been listening to The Avett Brothers for a year or so. Their catalog is so deep I haven’t had the time to explore it all and know every song from the first chord, like I do with my favorite bands (that will change, though, after this show). But their songs are the kind that feel like best friends by the end, even if you’ve never heard them before. Their music is one big open invitation to come join the family. They played three unreleased cuts Saturday night, and the best for me was easily “Open-Ended Life,” a wide-open rocker that’s one of the most straightforward uptempo songs they’ve ever written. This must be on their next album.

I guess they’re still technically touring off their breakthrough album, 2009’s “I and Love and You,” but you’d never know it by the setlist, which reached as far back as “November Blue” from their first full-length album, 2002’s “Country Was.” Every album had at least one representative at the party, most notably 2007’s “Emotionalism.”

That record’s “Paranoia in Bb Major” was one of my favorites of the night. Again, I believe this song was intentionally selected with the Grammys in mind, due to this utterly appropriate verse:

I’ve found myself in

A place that I’ve never been

A place that I thought that I would never be

These people looking back at me

Cue 3,700 voices raised in a unified cheer. More goosebumps.

The two showstoppers of the night, however, were probably their two best-known songs. “I and Love and You” was the perfect way to close the main set, as that song builds to a huge crescendo and then ends with a massive a capella singalong. And then there's “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise.”

This is the song they played Sunday at the Grammys, and I thought it was a poor choice. Following Mumford & Sons’ intense intro, the Avetts pushed “Doubt” too far to try and match (or perhaps it was just nerves). Back in the friendly confines of their own show, though, they played it with just the right mixture of strength and tenderness. What I love so much about this track is how everyone on it shines: when it hits that final glorious chorus, the entire band is at full power, and the heady brew they stir up is exactly right for whatever room they’re playing. If The Avett Brothers have written a better song, I haven’t heard it yet.

The show wasn’t perfect, but that had nothing to do with the band and everything to do with the venue. Constitution Hall is a horrible place to see a concert. The sound is often muddy and difficult to mix (Scott’s banjo was lost early in the show and the bass was up way too high). The seats are so close together on the floor it’s almost impossible to move and dance around with any genuine fervor. And the room’s just big enough to let in the tourists, yet small enough that those same morons can shout obnoxious things during quiet moments (quiet songs included!) and still be heard clearly. Can someone just go build a 9:30 Club that’s about three times the size of the original?

That said, the Avetts’ abundant joy easily overcame these shortcomings. Theirs is the type of show where you clap your hands until they’re red and sore … and then just keep clapping some more.

The Avett Brothers

Constitution Hall

Washington, D.C.


Murder in the City


Kick Drum Heart

Down with the Shine

Pretty Girl from Cedar Lane

January Wedding

Paranoia in Bb Major

Slight Figure of Speech

NYE Song

Will You Return

I Killed Sally’s Lover



Bella Donna


Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise

Open-Ended Life

November Blue

Go to Sleep

I and Love and You


And It Spread

Distraction #74

Talk on Indolence

Show Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes