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WL #31 – St. Vincent

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

…In listening to a new CD I often find myself fascinated with the decisions made in setting the order of songs. What an artist selects as the first song says a lot about their expectations for how the listener will experience the music. Often, an musician chooses one of the most accessible songs, eager to make a good impression and not wanting the listener to tune out immediately.

Interestingly, St. Vincent (the musical identity of prog-rock guitarist-singer Annie Clark) chooses a very different strategy on Strange Mercy. Rather than the obvious choice of starting with the listener-friendly Cruel, she starts out with the intense and idiosyncratic Chloe in the Afternoon before moving straight on to Cruel. Chloe is a really odd song to start an album — more of a provocation than an invitation (as if saying, “Don’t get too comfortable here”), consisting of a disjointed blend of keyboards, bass, guitars, drums, and an odd chorus that’s just the song title repeated multiple times. It’s an engaging song that seems to be about the sexual adventures of a femme fatale (“No kisses/No real names”), but it certainly knocks you off-balance the first few listens.

But Clark follows with one of the catchiest songs here in Cruel, which blends so many good things into an engaging mix — a catchy melody, an engaging guitar solo, and interesting lyrics about alienation and social expectations (“They could take or leave you/So they took you and they left you/How could they be so casually cruel?”).

Along the same lines as Cruel is Surgeon, which is built around a line from Marilyn Monroe’s diary (“Best finest surgeon/Come cut me open”). As recounted in an interview, Clark takes that line to build a song about longing for an easy fix to all that is broken in yourself.

Northern Lights is probably my favorite song on the album, a perfect showcase of Clark’s guitar talents. I particularly like how her final over-processed guitar solo of the song seems to push closer and closer toward some sort of breaking point and then… rather than turning back at the last moment, it simply breaks across into chaotic euphoria.

Every song on this album is good for a different reason, from the mellow Strange Mercy and Champagne Year to the hyper-kinetic Neutered Fruit to the steamy Dilettante. But I’ll highlight just one more: Year of the Tiger, which ends the album. Starting with a driving drum beat and the great opening lines “When I was young/Coach called me the tiger/I always had/A knack with the danger” the song proceeds to tell a tale of America in recession (“I had to be the best of the bourgeoisie/Now my kingdom for a cup of coffee”). Musically, the song contains many of the elements found in the rest of the CD, shifting between a long stretch with mellow guitar and keyboards and a drum-fueled ending.

This is one of those albums that contain a potent mix of technical skill, artistic imagination, and catchy songsmithing, but that don’t mix them so well that the various elements disappear — like a stew not a melting pot. Reminds me a lot of Sufjan Stevens’ 2010 album The Age of Adz. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.

Next week: Kate Bush

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WL #30 – Laura Marling

Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

…Truly awe-inspiring. A 21 year old British singer songwriter who puts out songs that grab your attention and simply don’t let go. Fascinating lyrics, a strong band of musicians, and a voice that seems remarkably intense and grounded — this is an album of jazz-inflected folk pop to marvel at from someone who appears might be this century’s Joni Mitchell.

The emotional core of the album is certainly an aptly-named song called The Beast. It starts slow and intense with Marling singing quietly “Where did our love go?/you will never know,” but it soon shifts to angry catharsis as drums and guitars come in and almost take over the song. Marling sings “he lies/so sweet that I choke/tonight I choose the beast/and tonight he lies with me.” This Beast may just be an aspect of herself — complemented by Sophia, “Goddess of power,” whom she tries to invoke when the beast approaches and who gets her own song near the end of the album. In any case, utterly amazing stuff.

Here’s the best video I could find of Marling performing The Beast in concert.

It would be tempting to just treat the rest of the album as just the songs that introduce The Beast and the songs that follow. Except each of these songs stands on its own so well. On the first track, The Muse, Marling sardonically recounts meeting a man “that talked to me so candidly/more than I’d choose.” But, after the band goes off on some truly catchy banjo and piano riffs, she comes back to introduce the man (and us) to the beast: “Don’t you be scared of me/I’m nothing but the beast/And I’ll call on you when I need to feast.”

This is a very nice live performance of The Muse on Later… with Jools Holland.

The Beast is such an emotional climax that Marling puts the three most subdued songs on the album right after it. The all acoustic solo Night After Night stands out, but even here, she’s outspoken (“I don’t stand for the devil/I don’t whisper in ears/I stand on the mountains/and call people to hear”).

Another highlight near the end of this album is the song Sophia. It starts slow and quiet with just an acoustic guitar and gradually builds as Marling sings, possibly to an ex-lover, “Where I’ve been lately/Is no concern of yours.” The song has a nice country twang to it.

Here’s the official video of Sophia.

I love how emotionally intense this music is and I marvel at how seasoned Marling seems to be for a singer-songwriter of her age. Looking forward to hearing more from her.

Next week: St. Vincent

WL #29 – Wilco

Wilco – The Whole Love

…This is an extremely impressive and entertaining CD of alt country/rock, consisting of 10 solid and varied songs bookended by two long tracks that really stand out. The first of these is Art of Almost, which starts with about a minute of drums and keyboards slowly building to a crescendo — then the music clears and we are left with Jeff Tweedy’s familiar voice singing: “No!/I froze/I can’t be so/Far away from my wasteland.” But the lyrics seem an afterthought — this song is just lush with layers of sound. Just when we sense the song winding down, Nels Cline’s guitar kicks in for an extended solo that’s simply exhilarating.

Here’s the band performing Art of Almost on David Letterman.

After that extended tour de force, we get ten short tracks that showcase the key elements that make Wilco so good: Tweedy’s enigmatic lyrics, the ways the three guitarists play off against each other, and the combination of pop sensibility plus a willingness to experiment. The songs are varied in style from the fast fury of I Might and Standing O to the quiet and mellow Black Moon and Rising Red Lung. Then there are the songs like Dawned On Me and Born Alone that are a little of both and are among the best here.

Here’s a live performance of Born Alone on the Canadian show Q.

Another fine song is the penultimate title track, which finds Tweedy in about the most romantic mode he reaches. He reflects on how he recognizes he’s not perfect: “And I know that I won’t be the one/To securely know when it’s wrong/But I hope I know when it’s past/And I hope I know when to show you my/Whole love.”

The album is rounded out with One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend), which is based on a real conversation Tweedy had with, yes, novelist Jane Smiley’s boyfriend at a party. The song is from the perspective of the boyfriend, recounting his difficult relationship with his religious father, who disapproved of his son’s lifestyle. Over the course of the song’s twelve minutes, we learn the complex set of feelings the son has after his father’s death — relieved that “now he knows he was wrong,” but also missing “being told how to live” and realizing how he learned from his father “how much more I owe than I can give.” Musically, it’s an incredibly simple song, featuring a basic acoustic guitar riff accented by a few notes on a piano. After the raw musical power on the rest of the album, the power here is all in the emotions of a son talking about his father.

Next week: Laura Marling

…Here’s the final installment of my 25* favorite albums of 2011.

5. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

Hyper intense alt folk from a charismatic 21 year old English singer songwriter who seems to be channeling Joni Mitchell. I bought this CD at the same time I bought the new Feist and Marling’s music just overwhelmed the other CD in getting my attention.

Here she performs Sophia on Later… With Jools Holland. I love listening to her music, but she does have a strangely subdued stage presence that doesn’t match her music. But this is a great song.

4. Wye Oak – Civilian

Dreamy noise pop cooked up by a duo from Baltimore. Like the St. Vincent, this is a perfect combo of edgy artistry, excellent songwriting, and pop sensibility.

This video shows them playing an acoustic version of Civilian on the balcony of an Amsterdam hotel. “I am nothing without pretend” is just a great opening line for a song.

3. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

A folk rock band I dearly love came out with a great collection of songs this year. More influenced by American folk styles than their more British folk-influence earlier albums, this CD including a guest appearance by Gillian Welch.

Here’s a really good Lord of the Flies-themed video for the song This Is Why We Fight.

2. Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow

A one of a kind musician produces an album that’s just flat out unlike anything else out there right now — with long songs that develop at their own pace with a unifying winter theme. Even though she is way less hyperkinetic as she once was, this is still unmistakably Kate, with a 13-minute long song (Misty) about a tryst with a snowman — it doesn’t end well.

I’d love to post a live performance, but the famously reclusive Kate hasn’t been on a stage in a long time — her last appearance may have been when she joined David Gilmour on stage for one song in 2002. Here’s a very nicely done fan video for Snowflake, featuring guess vocals by Kate’s 12 year old son Bertie.

1. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key

Each of the my top 6 flirted with being #1, but Bright Eyes prevailed because it was the most ambitious thematically. This album succeeds on two levels, both as a very enjoyable collection of songs and as a deep exploration of the meaning of life. Ultimately, the answer that Conor Oberst comes up with is that we are meant to break down the barriers between each other — as he puts it in the final song “You and Me/That is an awful lie/It’s I and I.”

Here are two live videos of the final two songs of the album. The first is an audience recording of Oberst performing Ladder Song and the second is a professional video of the full band doing One For You, One For Me at the close of a concert in Austin in September.


…Here’s the next installment of my 25* favorite albums of 2011.

10. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

Somewhat odd, but intense and compelling folk rock from John Darnielle. Where else will you get a wistful song told from the perspective of the Neanderthals (Sourdoire Valley Song) as well as tributes to Charles Bronson, Judy Garland, and Liza Minnelli?

Here, Darnielle and his band performs Prowl Great Cain live.

9. Amanda Shires – Carrying Lightning

Yes, another female singer-songwriter, but Amanda Shires produced a beautiful collection of alt-country (or country folk) songs this year. Consistently strong from start to finish.

This is her entire NPR Tiny Desk concert, where she performs Swimmer…, Shake the Walls, and When You Need a Train It Never Comes.

8. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

Hard to describe prog rock from St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) that often teeters on the edge of going completely out of control and yet has plenty of pop hooks. Another “grower” that gradually seduced me completely.

Here’s the official (and oh, so strange) video for Cruel. You gotta admire an artist who can play a guitar solo from inside a car’s trunk while being kidnapped — too bad about her getting buried alive at the end. Great song, though.

7. Admiral Fallow – Boots Met My Face

Power pop from a wonderful Scottish group — fun listening that I never got tired of. This deserved a lot more attention than it seems to have gotten.

This is a live performance of These Barren Years in Glasgow.

6. Wilco – The Whole Love

The best album in a while from the definitive alt-country band. I particular like the way this album is bookended by two songs (Art of Almost and One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)) that just sprawl rather than wrapping up neatly. This one is due for a longer review from me shortly.

I love this video of them performing Art of Almost on David Letterman. I thought network TV wanted every song to be finished within 4 minutes, so it’s refreshing that they let them do this great song in its entirety, including a raucous finish.

Tomorrow: #5 to #1

…Here’s the next installment of my 25* favorite albums of 2011

15. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine

A totally out of the blue collaboration between Scottish singer-songwriter King Creosote and English electronica musician Jon Hopkins that’s just pitch perfect. This is a very short album depicting life in a seaside Scottish town in a series of songs that proceed at their own pace.

Here’s a wonderful animated video for Bubble.

14. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Another one of those albums that I found just instantly enjoyable — folk rock with lots of close harmonies. I particularly enjoy the songs that sprawl a bit with instrumental solos.

This is a live performance of the band playing the title track.

13. The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow

A country folk duo, Joy Williams and John Paul White, with amazing on-stage chemistry together, even though they aren’t actually a couple in real life. Music that’s really easy to enjoy — bittersweet love and falling-out-of-love songs.

Here’s a video of them performing Forget Me Not live. How long can they hold that last note?

12. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

This one was definitely a “grower” for me, but its brilliance shines through. Harvey depicts her native country through the lens of war, frequently World War I. Harrowing and intense, but hard to forget.

Harvey made a video for each song on the album. Here’s her video for the Iraq-themed Written On The Forehead, which starts with someone reciting the initial words of the song in Arabic.

11. Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest

In an interview, Welch described this album perfectly as “ten songs about ten kinds of sad.” Even though the moods are dark, this is just a fabulous collection of bluegrass/folk/Americana. This time the couple really is a couple.

Here she and partner David Rawlings perform Dark Turn of Mind on Later… with Jools Holland. I love this song.

Tomorrow: #10 to #6

…Here’s the next installment of my 25* favorite albums of 2011.

20. Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What

It’s a testament to how great this year was for music that this album, Simon’s best since Graceland, fell all the way to #20. But this should take nothing away from his achievement. He’s created songs here that struggle with mortality, morality, and love in an often broken world that stand up well with the work of artists a third of his age.

Here’s the official video of the first song on the album, Getting Ready for Christmas Day, featuring an extended sample of a 1941 sermon by Rev. J. M. Gates.

19. My Morning Jacket – Circuital

This was one of those albums that I found instantly likable — hyper-accessible indie rock that was a great listen in the car on the way home from work.

Here’s Jim James performing Wonderful (The Way I Feel) at a sound check before a concert in 2010.

18a. Maria Taylor – Overlook

Every year, indie label Saddle Creek Records comes up with several interesting releases and this is one of them. Folk rock that rocks out on the first two songs and then settles into a mellow vibe for the rest of the album.

I can’t tell exactly what’s going on in this video for Matador. A party gathered around a fire and you just know a guitar will end up in the fire eventually — but first a marimba solo, followed by a guitar solo. Good song, though.

18b. The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart

The self-titled debut album from The Head and the Heart was my original #18, but then I decided to omit it because it’s technically a remastered reissue of the 2010 self-released version. But it’s shown up enough times on other best of 2011 lists that I decided to restore it. Really great folk rock from Seattle — I’m hoping something new from them appears soon.

Nothing from KEXP in a while, so here they are performing Ghosts. I love a complex song like this that’s filled with tempo and sound shifts.

17. The Unthanks – Last

Rachel and Becky Unthank become the only artists from my list last year to make a repeat appearance this year. Folk music from the north of England that crosses over for some pop appeal.

Here they perform The Queen of Hearts on Later… with Jules Holland.

16. Sarah Jarosz – Follow Me Down

Today’s list begins with a 70 year-old and ends with a 20 year-old. Follow Me Down is Sarah Jarosz’s second album of amazing bluegrass pop. A multi-instrumentalist, she’s currently attending New England Conservatory — here’s hoping academia doesn’t ruin her pure talent.

Here’s a video of Jarosz playing My Muse in a studio in Nashville.

Tomorrow: #15 to #11