Saturday, January 12, 2008

Listening Year 2007

How do I explain my utter indifference to Radiohead's In Rainbows, which everyone seems to think is awesome? It's true that I generally don't care for their previous album, Hail to the Thief. But still, Amnesiac is the album prior to that, and I'm always saying that it's their best (which it clearly is). So why the lack of interest? A few reasons, I think. First, I was unimpressed by the whole pay-what-you-like download gambit. I mean good for them and everything, but I had a hard time getting worked up over it as this great revolutionary act. Besides, I still don't like downloading albums. Second, as reported earlier, my relationship towards music has changed, I think irrevocably. I no longer care much about keeping up with new music. I still occasionally feel that tug of curiosity when I read about this or that record, but rarely enough of one to pursue much further. This doesn't mean no more new records, but it does mean I'm being a lot more parsimonious with my music funds. (And for the time being, it still means that what I can't get with trade-in funds, I can't get.) Third, and this time more specific to Radiohead, though still not much of an explanation: I don't know, somehow I just don't care. There was something about the nature of the transition from Amnesiac to Hail to the Thief that has made this listener lose almost total interest in new Radiohead music.

So, at least for now, no In Rainbows.

However, even without new Radiohead, I did have a pretty good listening year in 2007. In line with the second point above, and as expected, there was no end-of-year best-of music post here at The Existence Machine, but here is some of the music I spent a lot of time with:

Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. It took a couple of listens for me to warm to it, but over the course of dozens of listens since, this has become one of my favorite albums, period. I love every moment of it. Even after excessive exposure, it still seems to me to be somewhat mysterious. I'd love to say a lot more about it, but words are failing me. It's great, that's all. I'd never paid any attention to Neko Case before now, but I expect to be looking into her back catalog.

Bill Callahan - Woke on a Whaleheart. This is not the essential album that certain Smog releases are (Red Apple Falls, A River Ain't Too Much to Love, Wild Love, The Doctor Came At Dawn, Dongs of Sevotion), and on the first few listens, I didn't find much to like at all. But I kept coming back to it. If I was listening to it, I was listening to it obsessively, every day, possibly a few times a day, for several days on end. There's something about it that is both awkward and compulsively listenable. Overall, it doesn't seem to me that Callahan's lyrics are as memorable or as interesting as usual, but his rich baritone is always a pleasure, and the music has an easygoing yet still prickly atmosphere. It could be likened to classic rock, and yet I'm not sure what specific classic rock I could fruitfully compare it to. The opening track, "From the Rivers to the Ocean", probably the best song on the album, does have some lines I like: "Have faith in wordless knowledge"; "I could tell you about the river/or/we could just get in"; "And it's hard to explain what I was doin' or thinkin' before you". I'd say that "The Wheel" has a real hootenanny flavor, except that I've never experienced a hootenanny. But it feels communal and joyous, and I like how he speaks each line before he sings it. Other songs are loose and casual, inviting but not at the level of great Smog songs of the past. This is the kind of minor catalog album that reminds me of an artist's greatness. (Though if Callahan settled into a groove releasing only this kind of thing, I think I'd lose interest.)

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raising Sand. I was surprised as hell when I heard about this collaboration. Then I read about it in detail in The New York Times, and I was convinced I would buy it. I love Led Zeppelin, of course, and Plant's solo career has been pretty damn good, all things considered. But as he's gotten older, Plant's voice has become much better suited to mellower fare than to trying to belt out something like "Black Dog" like he's 25. I'm thinking of something like "29 Palms", my favorite song on the uneven Fate of Nations album. Here, he sounds great singing rockabilly and country rock, and he and and the excellent Krauss mesh very well together. My only complaint about it is that T-Bone Burnett's production sort of smoothes out some of the edges, which can create something of a somnolent effect on this listener. But this is a real treat.

Panda Bear - Person Pitch/Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam. I preferred Person Pitch to the group's Strawberry Jam. The latter has seemed at times overly shiny, and though I've liked each phase of the group's development, with each release Animal Collective gets further and further away from something elusive that drew me to them. For some, Feels was a sign that the group had fashioned an "indie rock" version of their sound. I wasn't concerned; I love Feels (again, I can listen to the gorgeous "Banshee Beat" all day long, and sometimes do). But Strawberry Jam is perhaps evidence that they've settled into that polished version of their previous selves a little too comfortably. Don't misunderstand: Strawberry Jam is quite good, and I'm liking it more the more I listen to it, but if you listen to the fragile Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished or the utterly strange and marvelous Here Comes the Indian maybe what I'm saying will start to make sense. . . I don't know, maybe not. Person Pitch, on the other hand, is glorious and significant evidence by itself that the collective still has a lot of excellent music to offer. (To be fair, Strawberry Jam isn't really evidence that they don't.)

The Necks. My favorite "new" band. Naturally, they've been around for more than a decade and have several recordings, all available (or not) as expensive imports. Awesome. Just what I need in my life these days. Anyway, Chemist was my second favorite album from 2006. It has three tracks, each about 20 minutes long. It comes up on iTunes as "jazz" and you could call it that, but somehow that seems not quite right. It's minimal at times, improvisational. They elaborate on themes, creating wondrously beautiful trance effects out of simple elements: bass, drums, piano, maybe some guitar, some electronics. I love it. When we visited California in April of last year, I looked for their other albums at Aquarius in San Francisco. I found several, all fairly expensive, as CDs go; most of them featuring one hour-long track. I ended up walking out with two: Hanging Gardens and The Boys. The latter, a soundtrack to a film by that name, features shorter tracks, none over eleven minutes. I chose it just for that reason. Now I wish I hadn't--not because I don't like it, but because Hanging Gardens convinces me that the Necks need more room in which to operate. It's a single hour-long track, and it's simply wonderful. Now I am coveting all those albums I left behind, especially Aether, and I also have my eyes on the four-cd (and priced accordingly), four-track Athenaeum, Homebush, Quay & Raab. Plus, apparently there was a new live album released in 2007 that I missed, called Townsville.

Those were the main high points of my year in music. LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver has like three or four great songs, and I listened to those songs a lot. As ever, I spend a lot of time listening to Bob Dylan, the Mountain Goats, Sonic Youth, the Rolling Stones, and loads of other records that now escape me. A lot of time enjoying the virtual radio of my iPod on shuffle. And that's about it.


Anonymous said...

I agree about "29 Palms" - best track on that album, maybe the best track of his solo career. I think his solo work has, in general, been somewhat uneven - the immediate post-Zeppelin stuff was just embarrassing. Good on him for getting together with Krauss, and though I'd love - LOVE - to see Zeppelin in concert, what Plant said recently about not wanting to be a dinosaur, trying to recapture old glory because of boredom - he's clearly enjoying the Krauss collaboration, and I think they may go back into the studio after the tour.

Here's hoping they put the O2 show on DVD.

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

I agree with you about Woke on a Whaleheart. Such a disappointment! Don't you rate Supper then?

Richard said...

Stephen - of course! Supper is fantastic! Completely forgot about it while I was writing this.

Matthew - agreed (though, from Plant's immediate post-Zep albums, I'm partial to "I'm in the Mood" and "Big Log", at least). regarding Zep & dinosaurs, I think Sasha Frere-Jones said it best (and captured my reluctance to see most any reunion concert) when he wrote in his New Yorker piece that if they toured, they'd merely be a Zeppelin "greatest hits" band (albeit an awesome one). They weren't that kind of band back in the day.

Anonymous said...

Hanging Gardens is a great one. A lot of people seem to love Aether, but it's just too slow and spare for my tastes and doesn't even begin to reach the Morton Feldman beauty that it seems to be trying for. (Mosquito and See-Through are even more static.) I'm very fond of Drive By, which has rather varied textures, and the four-cd set.

Richard said...

Thanks for the comment, Mr. Waggish. I'm glad to see you liked the 4-cd set. I think I may have to allow myself to splurge on it. I'm still curious about Aether, though I'll be interested to see how your criticisms compare to my experience. And I'll look out for Drive By.

LK said...

I really want the Krauss/Plant CD, myself.

Anonymous said...

Woke on a Whaleheart was a terrible disappointment! Especially when his release schedule has slowed down. An album every 2 years! - and Supper for me is like WW - a few good songs, and others to which I'm completely indifferent. Agree with Person Pitch - excellent. I liked Efterklang's Parades and Besnard Lakes' Are the Dark Horse for woozy psychedelia, Alisdair Robert's The Amber Gatherers in folk, but the best of the year for me was Robert Wyatt, predictably enough. It pips Rickie Lee Jones' The Sermon of Exposition Avenue to the post. Jandek's Manhattan Tuesday also notable, no studio album from them this year, though. MIA's Kala good for being driven around to. Hames Blackshaw's Cloud of Unknowing makes him the heir to Robbie Basho/ John Fahey etc. Linda Thompson's song Heart is lovely. Andrew Bird's album good. The Hold Steady good rock 'n' roll. The album most fun for me was Edgar Jones and the Jones'. I've got 50 or so 2007 albums to work through. I feel a strange DUTY to do it.

Richard said...

I've since picked up Wyatt's album, as well as the latest Six Organs of Admittance and Jackie-O Motherfucker releases. I'm enjoying them all. I suspect Wyatt's will become a favorite. Thanks for the other recommendations...

I know what you mean about feeling the strange duty... I felt that duty before, too, but I'm feeling it less and less anymore.

Anonymous said...

Don't let me dissuade you from Aether, since it's certainly intriguing and beyond what a lot of improv groups can attain (there's a whole school of ultra-quiet ultra-minimalist improv that is usually very unsuccessful). But I'd also recommend comparing it against Feldman's For Bunita Marcus, if you haven't heard it.

Not a lot of new music that grabbed me; the Wyatt was good (but not as good as his last), and the new Frog Eyes and Sunset Rubdown and their joint project Swan Lake, all excellent, and the new Wire EP. But most of my favorites were newly discovered old albums.

Richard said...

Mr. Waggish - Thanks for the Feldman recommendation. I'd meant to ask you which Feldman you had in mind. I have a couple, but they don't quite seem to tap into what I imagined Feldman was about when I first read about him, at least on initial listens, so they've languished. Not to worry about Aether. I'm still interested in hearing it.

I mostly spent time with older albums, too... I keep forgetting about that Wire EP. I'll probably pick that up eventually.

LK - you should totally get yourself a copy of the Krauss/Plant cd.