New Music for the Culturally Clueless

Good music is hard enough to find, but it’s even harder sifting through the malaise of more recent, over-hyped offerings of current artists whose reviews and exposure usually have nothing to do with how good their records are. If you’re like me, you probably stick to new releases from those you know will deliver (Dylan, Beck, Ryan Adams, etc.), and perhaps only download single mp3’s of songs you have heard that you liked. But buying single mp3’s of an artist is limiting in that it only gives you a slice of what the album really encompasses, and taken out of context can leave the listener short of the full experience they deserve and crave. It’s like getting to second base with someone really hot, and never finding out what they’re like in bed. I want the whole enchilada!

That being said, I would like to offer my most recent discoveries in new(er) music, and since I am a musician and serious music-lover who is very skeptical of anything new, I hope you will appreciate the fact that I am not easily swayed by public opinion and advertisements that too easily cry, “the Next Big Thing”. My inspiration for finding new music comes from my local public library and a blog called dk presents, and am much indebted to dk for opening my mind to contemporary music that doesn’t make my ears bleed. And so now I am passing my findings along in hopes of inspiring someone else to revise their stale music collection. Without further ado, here’s a list of albums I think you will like (and ones to avoid):

*Disclaimer* – This list is not intended for people who read Blender and/or  are avid followers of the current music scene. Most of these records have come out in the past 2-3 years. It is more intended for the person who is admittedly unaware of modern culture and probably hasn’t bought a new CD in the past couple years (but wants t0).

1. Madeleine Peyroux – Half the Perfect World

Peyroux croons like Billie Holiday and this album delivers with great modern song selections, stylish session players, and wonderful engineering/production. Just when you think jazz is dead, along comes a new surprise…

2. Iron and Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days

Apparently, folk is coming back in a big way, and it’s partly due to Sam Beam, the wizard behind Iron & Wine. Soft vocals with female harmonies create a great subtle mood throughout the album, but it is the songwriting that ultimately carries this record, with clear and introspective lyrics that evoke visceral images of children and the South. This is your lazy morning chillout record.

3. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

This one is idiosyncratic because no one will be able to replicate the atmosphere and conditions under which it was recorded. Not even Justin Vernon, who did most of it himself on a home recording setup in the woods, and it’s a miracle that it turned out as well as it did. Whiny singing and meager drumming over acoustic guitars never sounded so good. I wouldn’t expect the follow-up to be close to this, but you never know. A great listen, especially if you are going through a breakup.

4. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

SubPop is a great record label, probably the best around today (with the exception of ATO). They continue to discover great underground acts and give them enough exposure to become successful. This album is on most music critics’ list of greatest records in 2008, and it does sound great, mostly because the reverb on the vocals is so moody and entrancing, and the playing is so tastefully complementary to that. The songwriting isn’t so important as the ambience, which makes it a great listen from start to finish.

5. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

Funeral was a wonderfully inspired and solid first record from this Canadian indie band , and I was thoroughly impressed when I heard the equally solid followup. Win Butler clearly shines as the main songwriter, and his passionate singing about religion and loss perfectly complement his mostly positive, and sometimes sentimental, dirges. Beautiful melodies throughout make this a great hum-along disc. As a band, Arcade Fire rocks kind of like Crazy Horse with violins and humming girl backup singers.

6. Calexico – Carried to Dust

Ok, at first I was skeptical. When someone tells me to listen to a band from Arizona that blends Mexican folk music with American pop, I am immediately thinking this is going to be a cheesy train wreck, like a cross between Sublime and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, or something like that. Not so. White people canwrite songs with Mariachi horns behind them, and the results are definitely cinematic. This album offers a lot more than just the aformentioned desctiption entails, and I think it’s to the band’s credit that they can cover so many styles without seeming unfocused. Probably the best goup you’ve never heard of that’s been doing it for 10+ years, they just keep cutting their little niche in modern music deeper and deeper. You’ll have to pay attention sooner or later, why not start now? (By the way, Feast of Wire isn’t as good as this record is).

7. Cold War Kids – Loyalty to Loyalty

With a name like this I expected something between Dashboard Confessional and Bright Eyes. Instead I got a cd full of great songs (some are better than others, admittedly), with interesting arrangements over singing that conjures thoughts of Jeff Buckley. There is a soulfulness to the record that is vacant on most of the “indie” discs I’ve listened to, and I’m looking forward to checking out their debut album as well.

8. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

I’m still kind of on the fence about this one to be honest. On one hand, you have really great arrangements featuring awesome musicians (everybody loves Garth Hudson from the Band), and unique songwriting that is more Victorian than anything else. The words and concept of the album are a little inaccessible and pretentious, although ornate and beautiful, and Neko’s voice, while sultry, at times sounds a little sharp and dissonant to my ears. I keep listening hard to see if the songs will start to make sense. The main reason I put it on this list is because it’s so unique and at random moments will catch me off guard with bursts of eloquenence, which leads me to believe that the music will continue to grow on me.

9. The Black Crowes – Warpaint

I’m an old-school Black Crowes fan from their very first single (Atlanta represent!), but most people probably thought this band was way past its prime, especially after Marc Ford quit forever ago. I myself had kind of swept them under the sentimental rug, along with the likes of Pearl Jam and Portishead, but this album seriously blew my mind upon first listen. Seriously, folks, you really owe it to yourself to check it out. The Crowes sound like a well-worn version of themselves that doesn’t try too hard, and the album is so comfortable to listen to that I made it all the way through without stopping the first time I heard it. It really gets great around the sixth song, and I felt like I was listening to Pink Floyd, the vibe was so heady. Admittedly, Luther Dickenson isn’t the virtuoso that Marc Ford is, but he plays the hell out of the slide guitar and actually fits in with the band’s sound better than Ford. I’m thoroughly impressed by this effort, and am looking forward to the day I can afford their newest double-length with Levon Helm, entitled Before the Frost/Until the Freeze.

10. Elliot Smith – New Moon

Not much needs to be said here if you already know who Elliot Smith is. If you don’t like him, you won’t like this, because he’s at his most whiny and softest acoustic peaks here, ala Elliot Smith and XOXO. But man, this guy could write wonderfully acerbic pop songs, and this double-disc posthumous release just proves that he had so much more left to give . If you like Smith, you won’t be disappointed by this one. If you aren’t sure, check out Figure 8 and Either/Or first.

11. Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger

This was my first record of Ryan Adam’s, and I admittedly had never really listened to any of his music before a couple of years ago. As a songwriter, it’s ridiculous that I discovered this guy right before he decided to call it quits and marry Mandy Moore (he’ll be back, I just know it). This is his first album recorded after his alleged sobriety, and many of the songs have to do with him grappling inner demons and recovery. There are some great tunes on here, and proves that you don’t have to be on high on speedballs to be the greatest songwriter of your generation (you were sober when you wrote those songs, weren’t you Ryan?). And trust me, Adams is undoubtedly the greatest songwriter of the 2000’s, just like I think Elliot Smith was in the 90’s and Dylan was in the 60’s and 70’s. The Boss gets stuck with the 80’s. Anyway, check this album out, and if you’re really brave and want to have your life changed, go out and buy Heartbreaker. I dare you.

12. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky

It seems like everybody knows and loves Wilco these days, so it’s not a surprise that I picked this album as a winner. I just would like to say that while it’s not as good as A Ghost is Born, it has some shining moments, and Nels Cline continues to be tasteful and creative without stealing the show. My only complaint is that Jeff Tweedy still sounds pharmaceutical, for lack of a better word, and any songwriting he does that isn’t explaining why he’s such a grumpy old man doesn’t really mean much to an ordinary guy like me. That being said, there are songs on here that touch just slightly upon fusion and stay away from the experimental wastleland of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “Impossible Germany” is possibly the best song to listen to while taking off in an airplane

13. Lucinda Williams – West

Lucinda Williams is a godsend to country music. I know she’s not straight country, but the subject matter of the songs on West is so earthy and personal, that you can’t help but feel like this woman is the sole inheritor of the Hank Williams legacy. Written shortly after her mother’s death, this album features songs that call to Momma throughout, and the mournful lonesomeness in her voice is like a coyote in the desert, sending chills down my spine every time. By far some of her most sophisticated and deepest songwriting yet, Lucinda elucidates souls of dead poets throughout, and for the most part avoids the man-hating sludge rock that she’s never really pulled off that well on past efforts. Also, the cheesy Nashville production and distorted guitars that showed up on World Without Tears have been toned down in favor of sonic layers that really complement the music. I think this is her finest record yet – be prepared to weep.

 14. Kelley Stoltz – Below the Branches

Kelley Stoltz is a San Francisco songwriter I have been following for many years. He’s not really well-known outside of the City, but is clearly a very gifted musician. I chose this record to share, even though it came out in 2006, over the more recent Circular Sounds, simply because it’s better. Stoltz always self-records with an eight-track tape machine, which creates the loose psychedelic warble that gives his records a well-worn glow. By far the best album I have ever heard by anyone from the Bay Area in the last 10 years, Below the Branches collects influences and jumbles them up into original music, courtesy of Stoltz’s ability to conjure the sounds and atmospheres of classic records. The songs are simple and fun, the music cheerful and effortless. In fact, Stoltz should put more effort into his music, because he has such a wonderful voice and an endless supply of talent to draw from that everyone should know about. This is a great summer album, my friends.

15. Alejandro Escovedo – The Boxing Mirror

Lots of people have probably thought to themselves, “I see his name everywhere, I wonder if that guy is any good”. Well, I can assure you that he is great, and once you become accustomed to his unique style, you will find yourself entranced by the moody and spiritual presence that shape-shifts throughout this record. The closest influence I can name is Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, and hallucinations of animals in the desert appear often throughout songs that vary from folk rock to 80’s electro pop in instrumentation and feel. Escovedo sounds like no one you have heard before, and the indigenous loping of his enchanting lyrics will cast a spell on your soul and leave you wanting more. Oh yeah, and it’s produced by VU legend John Cale, if that helps.

CD’s that really didn’t do it for me:

1. Prince – Planet Earth

Just in case you are a Prince fan and thought that since he rocked “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the Superbowl so hard that his most recent album must be a winner as well, I’m here to let you know that it’s not. Sorry, Prince, please don’t sue me.

2. My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges

I’ve really liked this band ever since I heard It Still Moves. Since then they have moved further away from the reverb drenched Neil Young sound and more towards the Prince and whiteboy reggae sound. Ewww. Admittedly, there are some great moments on this record, and it’s worth buying some mp3’s, but please, for the love of God, stay away from “Highly Suspicious”. Z is a much better album, buy that instead.

3. The Black Keys – Catch and Release

Is it just me, or this band highly overrated? And is it just me, or is Dangermouse in that same category? Well, it makes perfect sense then that these two should be paired together to make what I consider to be a true dud of an album. Why buy the Black Keys when I can have the White Stripes? I caught and released this album as quickly as I could. Dan Auerbach’s solo effort is looking much more promising.

5. Grandaddy – Just Like the Fambly Cat

I really like Jackpot, and I thought this would kind of be in the same vein. It was, just not in a good way. If the synthesis of obnoxious synths and repetitive loops over folky acoustic guitars is your thing, check out Beck instead. I wanted to like it. I really did.

6. LCD Sound System – Sound of Silver

 I am guessing that James Murphy took all the money he made from his first record and blew it on coke, then decided to make something “genius”. In any case, I can’t get into this disc because I keep thinking that my CD player is skipping. After getting rid of this record, I am relieved to discover that my CD player is just fine.

Singles I’m Diggin’

1. The National – “Mistaken for Strangers”

2. M. Ward – “Helicopter” 

3. Slaid Cleaves – “I Feel the Blues Moving In”

4. Flight of the Conchords – “Bowie” & “Hiphopapotamus vs. Rhymenocerous”

5. Black Lips – “It Feels Alright”

6. Dan Auerbach – “My Last Mistake”

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5 Responses to “New Music for the Culturally Clueless”

  1. john Says:

    Dude, you didn’t even get the name of the Black Keys album right.

  2. Fantasy Says:

    Nice blogs template =) I love it

  3. 2010 in review « cjonesplay's blog Says:

    […] New Music for the Culturally Clueless October 2009 4 comments 4 […]

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