Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best of 2013: Visual Art

  1. Mike Kelley, Mike Kelley (MoMA PS1, NYC) – I’m a little ashamed to admit that I didn’t really know Kelley’s work except for the pop culture stuff I couldn’t ignore - the Sonic Youth association, is band Destroy All Monsters - but this hit me like a hammer.  Walking up the stairs of PS1 and finding myself in a room entirely devoted to takes on Superman’s bottled city of Kandor, the reminder of home that underlined the impossibility of ever going home, and that set the tone for the whole exhibit.  A grappling with personal history and the world and a look at what drives us to try to create a utopia even as it stays out of reach.  So much beauty and so much deep tragedy that I could have been there much longer than the three hours I was and still not absorbed it all.
  2. Marc Chagall, Love, War, Exile (Jewish Museum, NYC) - This assembled a lot of Chagall’s work I didn’t know beforehand and some of the most gripping pieces I’ve ever seen.  His work about his marriage to Bella had the ephemeral quality of love rising out of myth and the room of his crucifixion work making explicit the historical echoes of the holocaust reduced me to horrible, embarassing tears.
  3. Christian Marclay, The Clock (Wexner Center) -  I saw between 8 and 9 hours of this during the month it was at the Wexner and regretted not seeing more.  If you’re anything like me, if you gave this piece more than 10 minutes the rhythms and the jolts of adrenaline were so seductive that I had to drag myself away after an hour or two whenever I had another appointment to make.  This used very mundane and very tense moments from a wide variety of (mostly English language) film and created musical movements and narrative within itself, a ballet of tension and release.  As close as Marclay’s yet come to a symphony and a work of art that’s immediately accessible but limitless in what it can give you.
  4. Various Artists, Blues for Smoke (Wexner Center) - This exhibit - which came to the Wexner after the Whitney - vivisected modernism of the 20th century to show the blues aesthetic pumping through its veins.  Anything using the name of a Jaki Byard album, maybe the greatest cubist blues pianist of all time, has big shoes to fill and this does again and again.  Big enough to encompass Romare Bearden’s collages and a big gorgeous Basquiat.  Beauford Delaney’s portrait of Charlie Parker like a Renaissance pope with gold wreathing his head as you look into a room with Monk and Trane playing the soundtrack to toy blue coal train weaving past upturned piano lids like tombstones.  Julia Koether’s “portrait” of Robert Johnson in red overlooking Rodney McMillan’s chilling installation of a church cast in stitched together red leather suffused with that leather death-smell.  Zoe Leonard’s stitched together dessicated fruit and lines of suitcases.  Documentaries of Cecil Taylor and Samuel Delany.  Carrie Ann  Weems bitterly ironic social realism.  Glenn Ligon’s word paintings next to the Richard Pryor special they’re drawn from.  A world big enough for Henry Flynt and Howlin’ Wolf and George Lewis and Cannibal Ox and Lil B and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the poet Bob Kaufman.  You could show this to someone who doesn’t know modern art at all and it’d be a damn fine introduction or you could show it to someone who’s a fan of any three of the figures in here and it would break down the walls for everybody else.
  5. Amalia Pica, Amalia Pica (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago) I’d seen (and loved) Pica’s piece “Eavesdropping” at the New Museum’s last triennial with glasses of various shapes and colors driven into a wall echoing both a glass to the wall for listening and shells shot into a building.  This show sustained that ambiguity but leavened it with a real hope for the world and a joy in the small things.  Household materials turned into sculpture, poetic allusion laid over abstraction.  This made my heart sing.
  6. Glenn Ligon, Neon (Lurhing Augustine Gallery, NYC) - Ligon’s neon work took a little longer to sink in for me than his text paintings which I saw first but over time they’ve become some of his pieces I love best.  They resist description but I’ve been turning this show collecting most of his neon works in a gallery over in my head since the January afternoon where I saw it.  Negro sunshine.  America.
  7. Shinchi Maruyama, Nudes (Bruce Silverstein Gallery, NYC) - Maruyama’s nudes were gorgeously disorienting, photographed with long exposure time so flesh liquifies and leaves trails like an acid trip.  Pouring time over the realism of photography made me think about how fleeting looks are and the inexorable urge to make surreal details into a realistic whole you can wrap your brain around.
  8. Martha Colburn, Camera, Lights, Charge, Pop (Columbus College of Art and Design Canzani Gallery) - CCAD has really stepped its game up in the last few years.  This year had great shows by Laura Bidwa, Gary Panter, and a couple of stunning group shows, plus a wider range of speakers and events including Holland Cotter’s inspiring talk and Bob Loss’s always terrific MIX comics symposium to engage the wider community.  But my favorite this year was Martha Colburn’s punky, energizing mixed media video and collages.  Every time I went through this it made me smile like a child, my only regret is missing the event where members of the local symphony accompanied her films.
  9. Richard Serra, New Sculpture (Gagosian Gallery, NYC)- Richard Serra’s big metal sculptures are as close to a sure thing for me as exists in the art world and this new show over  two Gagosians was phenomenal.  These cold monolithic labyrinthine plates, curved or slabs, feel like they’re leeching any darkness out of me and taking it on in the world, like magnets.  And I don’t want to know too much of his intention because that association is so strong for me and so good that I don’t want to lose it.
  10. Various Artists, Cuban Forever (Pizzuti Collection) - The Pizzuti Collection opened this year with a bang, both the highlight selections from the developer’s personal collection and especially this group show.  A look at a corner of modern art I had close to no familiarity with.  Amazing scholarship and stunning work around every corner, from Roberto Diago’s abstractions to Alexandre Arrechea’s glass punching bag weighted with crumbles of where he’s been to my favorite piece, Teresita Fernandez’s plexiglass colored cubes called Stacked Smoke I could have stared at for hours.
  11. Various Artists, Counter Forms (Andrea Rosen Gallery, NYC) - A phenomenal exhibition of work twisted and decaying bodily forms to get at a deep poetic truth and strike an emotional chord.  Paul Thek’s “meat sculptures”, Alina Szapocznikow’s lamps and grimly unsettling looks at how easily  the body is commodified, Tetsumi Kudo’s gardens with body parts blooming amidst plants and sensual, horrifying sketches, Hannah Wilke’s fleshy abstract sculptures.  If you could go through this gallery show without ideas flooding you, I don’t know that to say to you.
  12. Robert Motherwell, Early Collages (Guggenheim Museum, NYC) - I loved Motherwell’s work before this but had only a vague understanding of his collage pieces but the use of color and space here unlocked his work for me in ways I never expected.
  13. Various Artists, Iran Modern (Asia Society, NYC) - Similar to Cuban Forever I had very little familiarity with the strains of modernism in pre-revolution Iran and this, my last visual art stop on my most recent New York trip was a similar revelation.  Geometric abstractions using mirrors and mosaics, deeply personal takes on rugs and tapestries, work directly impacted by the headlines of the ‘70s.  Breathtaking.
  14. Chris Burden, Extreme Measures (New Museum, NYC) - A look through Burden’s sculptural work. Going from his transition piece moving from performances, a working motorcycle that turned a giant wheel which was pretty damn impressive, to Burden’s Porsche balanced with a meteorite on a beam to 600 models of submarines hanging in air like an ominous cloud made more ominous when you see the wall card that states these are the submarines the United States currently has in its quiver.  A show that makes me question what they mean by extreme measures - is it risking your own body? Is it risking other people (the Faulkner line about “Ode to a Grecian Urn” being worth any number of old ladies? Is it risking the future?  
  15. Art Spiegelman, Co-Mix (Jewish Museum, NYC)  - It was interesting seeing this retrospective and thinking about it in the context (maybe just in my own head) of John Zorn’s 60th birthday and its attendant celebrations.  Like Zorn, Spiegelman’s built a career out of seemingly following every impulse and curiosity he has and plowing that field for exactly as long as it interests him.  And more often than not, it hits.  Beyond that, and beyond how great his work looks in a museum, the room with every page of Maus in working drafts was an inspiring look into process.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Best of 2013: Live Music

Good lord.  Most of my years are good years for live music but this was exceptional.  Upwards of 135 shows at over 60 venues spread out over a handful of cities, and a few duds but a vanishingly small number.  Similar to my records, not a lot of big, straightahead rock made this list but what did was choice.  And a surfeit of searing abstraction and firey hip shaking.  Of the four “best of” lists, this one had the hardest decisions, the most worthy stuff left off, and the most moments of “Fuck, I can’t believe how lucky I am” in looking back.

My comments last year about different venues stepping up and coming into their own and more genres being covered came even more true this year.  As predicted, Natalie’s turned out to be a first class venue and appears with two shows with another two phenomenal shows that missed this list by the skin of their teeth (Scott Miller with Rayna Gellert and Kenny Roby).  Great food, great staff, great sound - for any kind of listening-room gig this is the place I secretly hope certain kinds of shows will steer toward because nobody does it better.  I was skeptical about a Jazz Standard/City Winery/Route 33 Rhythm and Blues model working in Columbus but most of the shows I see there are packed and it’s clearly filling a niche most of Columbus didn’t know was needed.  Woodlands expanded Cthulhu-like to an additional three bars and their flagship continues to be light years away from the staid room it had been at Thirsty Ear.  Several shows almost made this list there (Marco Benevento, two appearances by Jack Grace Band, Jimbo Mathus) and they’ve already booked some stuff for 2014 I’m salivating over.  

New York continues to hold a special place in my heart and 30% of the list is made up of NYC shows - impressive considering only 4% of the year was actually spent there, but my trips both had incredible batting averages and there are still a number of shows that in another light would’ve made this list hands down (Britten@100 at Trinity Church, Brain Cloud at Rodeo Bar, Bobby Previte/Mike Gamble/Fabian Rucker and Jacob Garchik’s The Heavens at Bowery Electric, the list goes on). .

On the local front, the usual suspects got better and more intense. Aside from the locals on the list proper, I can’t not bring up a handful of bands I’ve only seen once or twice that are already good enough I bet they’ll be destroying me in a year - The Christopher Rendition, Orson Buggy, Comrade Question, Clave Sonic, The Utopiates, Dan White Sextet.  Found a new favorite guitar player, Aaron Quinn, whose jazz and modern classical contexts are already enrapturing me.

20 (even 22 with some minor cheating) isn’t enough if you’re really paying attention.  20 isn’t enough if you give a damn and you’ve got enough of your health and enough spare spending money to go out once or twice a week.  20 isn’t enough.  But these are 20 shows I felt bad for at least a handful of people for not being at (not always the same people, Big Sandy doesn’t have the same crowd as Swans, and that’s a good thing).  These are 20 shows I wanted to hug people leaving or have a nightcap and talk until last call about or tell people about first thing the next morning.

  1. Marc Ribot Trio, 11/05/13 (Village Vanguard, Manhattan) - I was already looking at the first week of November for my second trip to New York of the year but when Ribot was announced as playing the Vanguard that sealed it.  One of my favorite guitarists and an artist who did an immeasurable amount to turn me onto genres and scenes and other players I’m still a fan of today but this was the first time I’d ever seen him live as a leader and it didn't disappoint.  Playing to the tradition-minded sense of Vanguard history as well as any set I’ve ever seen (and I say that as someone who’s seen Paul Motian, Marilyn Crfispell, and Andrew Cyrille play in that storied space) with a set of two Ayler songs, a Coltrane tune, at least one standard I didn't write down, and a couple of originals or perhaps fully improvised pieces this was the most intense hour of music I saw all year.  That sharp, stinging tone ringing out in that perfect sounding little room bending and breaking notes and maybe most impressive on a long spidery ballad in the middle of the set.  On drums, Chad Taylor, always fantastic but playing with a deep backbeat that still surprised and still found new and fascinating corners and new ways to play off the other two members of the trio.  And Henry Grimes, the legend, who I was seeing for the second time (the first on James DeBruicker’s bachelor party in Chicago), good lord.  Still such a rich tone and a perfect, unflappable center of gravity especially on arco.
  2. Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, 09/11/13 (Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) - This might have been the most fun I had at any show this.  It was damn sure the most fun I had at a seated show.  I was skeptical going in, because Big Sandy and band are the consummate dance band to end all dance bands, but they assessed the situation and played two sets of sexy, soulful western swing and rockabilly and jump blues with a slightly stripped down band consisting of longstanding right hand man Ashley Kingman on lead guitar and a newer rhythm section.  His powerhouse voice was the unequivocal star of the show and he and the band took this supper club atmosphere and played it to the hilt, dipping into his darker material like “Wishing Him Away” and “The Ones You Say You Love” but not neglecting stomps and swinging like “Hey Lowdown” and “How DId You Love Someone Like Me”.  And his extended paean to Dan Dougan’s legendary clubs Stache’s and Little Brother’s brought back many a sweet memory.  Even when his guitarist was shamelessly hitting on my girlfriend, Big Sandy passed a glass of his own tequila from the stage - a mensch and the best goddamn entertainer working today.  
  3. Globalfest, 01/13/13 (Webster Hall, Manhattan) - This is neck and neck with Big Sandy for the most and best fun I had at a show and a big highlight from the same NYC trip that provided two slots of my theater best of and another two on this list.  The only show I've ever seen use all three stages in Webster Hall and a tremendous range of art.  Fatamou Diawara’s subtle rhythms and gorgeous, pure voice I wanted to live in.  The great Oliver Mutukudzi who I never thought I’d get to see live with his light and gentle ‘70s party and politics.  The Stooges Brass Band merging hip-hop breaks with classic second line step and swagger.  La Santa Cecile’s gypsy latin hybrid.  Everywhere I turned around there was sheer delight.  
  4. Swans, 07/24/13 (Bluestone) - Swans have made a particular art out of catharsis and its denial not unlike the pleasures in S&M or religious asceticism.  And while their show at Outland about three years ago was great, this was a more relaxed, confident show, a band enjoying being at the height of their powers.  Very little classic material - though a *smoking* “Coward” - but you want this band to play exactly what they’re most excited about at any given moment, and as much of a focal point as Michael Gira’s deep and dark voice is, every part of this finely oiled machine was clicking just right through waves of pulsing percussion and guitar noise.  
  5. Colin Stetson, 01/12/13 (Bitter End, Manhattan) - Winter Jazzfest is pretty phenomenal but there’s a lot of cramped rooms and waiting in line.  In New York.  In January.  But what was good - in addition to this, Jacob Garchick’s The Heavens and Bobby Previte’s Baritone Trio at Bowery Electric, Kneebody at Subculture, Eric Revis’s trio at Zinc Bar - was incredibly good and this one 45 minute set would've made the money spent and the time on a sidewalk worth it all even if nothing else had been up to that standard.  Stetson alone on one of the more storied musical stages in NYC (I was standing underneath a photograph of Kris Kristofferson) alternating between bass and alto sax and using the whole sax, setting up rhythmic patterns on keypads and blowing one harmony against another without any benefit of loops or effects pedals.  But this never degenerated into simple parlor trick virtuosity, it was never like watching a trained seal,every instance of technique felt like a tool to strip the song down to an ever-deeper level of emotional content and intensity.  I left shaking.  
  6. Bill Frisell Big Sur Quintet, 12/03/13 (Wexner Center) - Speaking of virtuosi whose work is always in the service of content, Frisell’s most recent appearance was one of his most striking in recent memory.  Much like chamber music, this was not a show about solos, soloing was brief (some tunes didn’t have any solo) and always suffused with compositional purpose.  The compositions inspired by Big Sur, California, were rapturous including a razor-sharp riff on the long surf music tradition, a Beach Boys cover, tributes to Mills College minimalism and a couple pure, beautiful melodies.  The string section - Hank Roberts, Eyvind Kang, and Jenny Scheinman - were all perfect but Rudy Royston was the MVP of the evening, chunky interesting drumming that never overpowered anything. Every element of this quartet was perfectly balanced and always in service of the song.
  7. Pimps of Joytime, 02/20/13 (Woodlands Tavern) - Pimps of Joytime enraptured a not-bad crowd for a cold February weeknight and got a frequently staid Columbus audience grooving.  With a curator’s love of different dance steps and different grooves, including a particularly good grasp of the clave, and dynamics that jibed with a hundred heartbeats this was some of the best fun I had all year.
  8. Spiritualized, 09/14/13 (Wexner Center) - A band I’d been a fan of since High School finally coming through town on the back of one of the best records they’ve made and with one of the best live lineups they’ve ever had, anchored by the seismic drumming of Kid Millions from Oneida behind the kit.  Jason Pierce led a clinic in how commanding a presence can be just sitting down with a guitar, never taking his shades off or even really acknowledging the audience.  Waves of coruscating light and sound, taking me, at least, to a church of the flesh.
  9. French American Peace Ensemble, 06/18/13 (Shadowbox Cabaret) - Free jazz has a special place in my heart, it’s like mainlining raw emotion - joy, rage, desire - right into the pleasure centers of my brain.  And it’s mediated by the skill of the artists (god knows I’ve also seen some terrible free jazz over the years) but it gives the impression of being unmediated the same way a Jackson Pollock painting does, it looks like a window right into your soul and into another universe.  The great Kidd Jordan from New Orleans with a command of the tenor like no one else living and the soulful, heartbreaking tone,and Louis Sclavis, a little more restrained but perfectly in the pocket as Jordan’s reeds foil.  Francois Tusques on piano doing fascinating comping on music that’s very hard to comp around.  And my favorite rhythm section of any genre of music since I first heard them when I was in High School, William Parker on bass and Hamid Drake on drums.  
  10. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, 11/07/13 (Jazz Gallery, Manhattan) - My first trip to the new Jazz Gallery, on the 5th floor of a nondescript building not far from Gramercy, and I’m happy to report it’s the same bare bones church to music it was below Houston and a phenomenal sounding room.  And the Secret Society - about whom my admiration is on public record, after all they’re on my records of the year - have hit a new layer of purity and intensity.  Nadje Noordhuis’ trumpet blew my hair back from across the room, especially on a new song, a tribute to legendary teacher and trumpeter Laurie Frink, and Ryan Keberle’s trombone an even brighter spark in the blood river that is the lower end of this big band.  That hour summed up what makes this band special and looking around there were so many other musicians and particularly people who had clearly come from other gigs earlier that night, if this streak keeps up I’m calling it now, this is going to be one of the most influential bands in decades.
  11. Julia Haltigan, 11/05/13 and Arum Rae, 01/15/13 (11th Street Bar, Manhattan) - People I trust have been telling me about Tuesdays at 11th Street Bar for a while and in the wake of Lakeside and Banjo Jim’s closing word on the street is that this is the last Manhattan outpost of the evergreen NYC alt.country scene.  This year, I was lucky enough to have both my trips to the city overlap and two fascinating singers.  Julia Haltigan I’d heard for a while but live with her band finely tuned, her torch songs exploded, especially my (still) favorite of hers, “I Don’t Want to Fall in Love”.  For anything to make an impression on me after that towering Marc Ribot show (at the top of this list) was a marvel but that’s a set I’d see every week if I had the chance, and many people I talked to said they do exactly that.  Arum Rae was a totally unknown quality to me but it was one of the most fascinating, pure voices I’ve heard since the first time I heard a young Neko Case, both in her own knotty songs and even striking on a song I’ve heard countless times, as close to a hoary standard as alt.country has, “Angel From Montgomery” suddenly sounded new and incredibly moving.
  12. Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express, 05/12/13 (Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) - The first appearance on this list this year of Alec Wightman’s always top notch singer-songwriter shows but not the last.  He consistently books things no one else brings to town and finds an appreciative (if occasionally a little too demonstrative/friendly) audience every single time.  Chuck Prophet with his full rock band proved again he’s the consummate professional and that’s no slight and not damning with faint praise.  In a seated room he didn’t pander and he didn’t rein his band in but they took advantage and did a few of his softer tunes he rarely totes out in a heavier rock club and the band has such a grasp on dynamics that nothing was overpowering for the room but there was no lack of power.  A clinic in the power of the history of rock songs.
  13. Omaha Diner, 11/09/13 (Drom, Manhattan)  - Steven Bernstein on trumpet and slide trumpet (and endless charisma), Skerik on saxophone, Bobby Previte on drums (and a couple of surprising vocal turns) and Charlie Hunter on guitar doing abstracted takes on top 40 songs and it was some of the best fun I had all year.  Two hour long sets covering hits I genuinely love (“Miss You”, “Single Ladies”) and kind of hate in most contexts (“One Bad Apple”, “Thrift Shop”). They found the exciting, adrenaline pieces of each of those songs and went off on flights of fancy without ever becoming disconnected from the melody  I didn’t stop dancing except when I needed another beer for the entire show.  
  14. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with Sharon Van Etten, 03/17/13 (Ryman, Nashville) - I had to be talked into this, by A. of course, and of course she was 100% fucking right.  I was hung up that the time I saw the Bad Seeds - the last American tour with the frontline of Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey together - was a pinnacle and I hadn’t really liked the (non-Grinderman) records since.  But the new record Push the Sky Away felt like a really interesting new direction and live it was a riveting, at times meditative, overheated swamp of moody sound.  Nothing overpowered anything else, and especially at the Ryman?  Wow.
  15. The Hexers and Fort Shame, 08/24/13 (Ace of Cups) - My two favorite bands in town pound-for-pound hit new heights this year and my favorite show of either (narrowly edging out Fort Shame’s riveting set at A’s birthday show also featuring fantastic sets by Dirty Biscuits and Fes Minck’s soul cover band debut, Fes and the Black Panthers).  Fort Shame's fusion of Todd May's (he of one of my top 5 records this year) soul-country ballads and explosions and acidic guitar with Sue Harshe's surging rhythm guitar and piano and almost art-songs orbiting around the vibrant, flexible rhythm section of Jamey Ball on bass and George Hondroulis on drums, with an ever expanding role for Bob Starker on tenor sax, this was one of those shows where everything clicked. Almost nothing could have bettered Fort Shame that night... Except The Hexers who took that as a challenge. With guest stars including Starker, Caroline from Washington Beach Bums on trumpet, and some guest vocals, The Hexers turned Ace of Cups into a juke joint inside the middle of a tent revival in the midst of burning down. The Sonics met Seven Seconds doing girl group songs, as good a rock and roll dance party as I've ever been to.
  16. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, 04/07/13 (Valleydale Ballroom) - This wad a textbook perfect country show. The inherent charm of Robison and Willis (my pal Jason Baldwin said, "I might like them even more together.") is undeniable. Rock solid accompaniment on lead guitar/pedal steel and upright bass didn't hurt. But those songs, both Robison's own writing and their phenomal song selections - including the Blasters' "Border Radio", 70s chestnut "9,999,999 Reasons", and a haunting Terry Allen song about the death penalty - but this show rightly put their new songs on a level with their massive hits from the past.
  17. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, 01/25/13 (Wexner Center) - Bonnie “Prince” Billy came through town with Emmett Kelly on lead guitar and vocals and Cheyenne Mize on violin and vocals.  This might have been my favorite format to see Oldham in and the setlist touched on almost everything I wanted to hear.  A clinic on the pure luster of songcraft and singing with your friends.  
  18. Los Vigilantes, 04/20/13 (Boneyard) - The Boneyard is one of the venues in town I don’t get to very often - it’s a recipe for feeling old for me, most of the time - but it’s definitely done its part to keep Columbus on the DIY punk touring circuit, providing some stability in a scene where venues don’t usually last more than a school year (aside from perennial Legion of Doom).  And arguably the brightest lights in the very fertile Puerto Rican garage rock scene, Los Vigilantes, tore it up.  
  19. Sound Prints, 09/24/13 (Wexner Center) - The best straightforward jazz set I saw all year.  The first Dave Douglas record I ever bought was his sextet tribute to Wayne Shorter, Stargazer, which was also my gateway into Shorter’s compositions beyond his work with Miles Davis.  And this new tribute project was every bit as good as I hoped a quintet of some of my heroes would be.  Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas’s frontline of tenor and trumpet and their compositions along with a few new tunes written expressly for this project by Wayne Shorter.  Joey Baron’s always masterful drumming keeping everyone on stage alert.  Lawrence Fields on piano and Linda Oh on bass more than holding their own despite being a generation or two removed
  20. Talisha Holmes Ensemble, 04/25/13 (Brothers Drake Meadery) and Lydia Loveless and the Washington Beach Bums, 06/27/13 (Ace of Cups) - These two shows are linked in my head because they both set a high water mark for artists I love in town but had some reservations about.  In an hour or so each, these sets swept those reservations away.  Talisha Holmes has a phenomenal voice and over the years has been a strong presence with J. Rawls’ Liquid Crystal Project, Evan Oberla Project, and Mojoflo but her larger band at Brothers Drake, featuring such Columbus heavy hitters as Adam Smith (Descendre, Dead Sea) on keys and Ron Hope on percussion, was a revelation.  Her stage presence was as strong as anyone I’ve seen, and her singing had a new, stronger expressive power.  But the big key was the songs, splitting the difference between the complicated joy of Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder and the lush tension of Norman Whitfield produced Tempations; some of the most complex, hooky modern soul you’ll see anywhere in town.  And the Lydia Loveless set, introducing her new drummer to the Columbus audience with the same stalwart support of her husband Ben Lamb on bass and Todd May on lead guitar, her band is a well-oiled machine now and the new songs were hookier, punchier and more diverse than anything I’d seen from her before.  This set took her from a “really good, what’s the rest of the bill like?” to a “must see” and I can’t wait for the new record.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Best of 2013: Recorded Music

Man, there were some tough calls to make for this list but that's the best kind of problem to have.  There are some major blind spots I'm not happy about - why did I only hear half a dozen rap records and even less contemporary R&B? - but each one of these records shook me in a real, even if hard to define way.

  1. Aoife O’Donovan, Fossils - Any of my top five could’ve been the number one record.  Their one commonality is that the minute I hit play, wherever I was, I stopped and exhaled and thought My god, I’m glad this record’s in my life right now.  This might be the record of the year.  I knew Aoife a little bit when she was in college and I kept up with her career through the grapevine and her fine records with Crooked Still and her song on the last Alison Krauss record.  But when this hit me it was still a revelation.  A ferociously sexy and stirring record painted in inkwashes and shimmering pastels underpinned by a wry, real, knowing darkness.  “Red & White & Blue & Gold”, maybe the song I played the most this year, takes a slice of life story about July 4th and being newly.  in love and shades it until it’s so real the paper’s starting to flake and fall apart.  Her voice both reaching and feeling like it’s just falling into place on “Come on / Let’s kiss / In the July sun / Beneath the July sky / Oh the feeling I get / When you pass me by” and Charlie Rose’s pedal steel and Rob Burger formerly of Tin Hat Trio’s Spooner Oldham-styled Wurlitzer swirling around her and around each other is a moment that made me stop dead the first time I played it and still gave me chills when I played the track again when I was writing this.  “Beekeeper” shares similar slacker-boy-love-and-skepticism DNA with Megan Palmer’s “Davey” and Ani Difranco’s “Napoleon” but the specificity and compositional rigor put it in the rarefied heights of Joni Mitchell’s “A Strange Boy” - “Hey, today’s the day - are you ready to fall? Are you ready to jump / From a plane with a stranger on your back?” with the strings pulling everything taut.  But the record’s far from monochromatic.  “Oh, Mama” takes a standard whiskey-drinking singalong and elevates it to Gillian Welch levels, “Fire Engine” is the best country shuffle I heard all year and “Pearls” is a paranoid  love song like almost no one writes anymore.  The playing throughout is top notch and Tucker Martine’s production is the best I’ve heard from him since Bill Frisell’s The Intercontinentals (which is saying something considering his work on Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone made this list last year, but I stand by it).  
  2. Todd May, Rickenbacker Girls - Todd May’s been in contention for best songwriter in town for almost as long as I’ve known there was music in my town and with his first record under his own name he carved out a knotty, snarling masterpiece of finding your place in the world.  I gushed about this record at some length here, and raved in person to everybody I know over and over again but every time I play it so many moments still stop me cold, bring me up short.
  3. Jason Isbell, Southeastern - Isbell was a songwriter I always liked from his first appearance with the Drive By Truckers (and he made an impression even on that first tour which stopped at Little Brother’s with Slobberbone and my pals in the Sovines) but this is his best record by a wide margin.  This record feels like it’s about the world, he’s taking the whole world into his approach and filtering it through himself.  The characters’ criticisms don’t feel like self-pity and it’s entirely free of solipsism.  People and places are drawn as though they’re really seen. I swear out of 12 songs 9 made me go “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better song” at least a couple times, but I have to go with “Relatively Easy” , every line carved with no flash, nothing left behind - “Watch that lucky man / Walk to work again / He may not have a friend left in the world / See him walking home / Again, to sleep alone / I step into a shop / To buy a postcard for a girl” is the fucking bridge.  And the playing is top notch, from Will Johnson and Kim Richey adding harmonies (the latter underlining the similarities to Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker but not in any bad way) to his new wife Amanda Shires’ soaring violin lines to Brian Allen and Chad Gamble’s just-enough rhythm section.  Every part of this record feels in its place and of its place. Here’s to hoping this is the start to a dozen or more records in this league and it’s not just a mic drop before a victory lap but even if this is all we get it’s more than enough.  
  4. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Brooklyn Babylon - There’s no surprise this would end up on my list the second it was released, after my gushing over Argue’s first album Infernal Machines and the theatrical collaboration with Danjel Zezelj this music was composed for at BAM making one of my shows of the year two years ago. But I’m overjoyed to report it’s even better than I was expecting.  A soulful panorama going from Sousa-esque marches to loping punch-drunk waltes reminiscent of the Carla Bley/Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra to rippling minimal scene painting.  Every bit of promise on the first record is brought to full flower in Brooklyn Babylon and the playing is nothing short of breathtaking.  Best big band record in recent memory.
  5. Erik Friedlander, Claws and Wings - A heartbreaking series of woodcut miniatures written by Friedlander and played perfectly by him with assistance from Sylvie Courvoisier on piano and Ikue Mori on electronics.  A tribute to Friedlander’s late wife, the dancer and choreographer Lynn Shapiro, this set contains some of Friedlander’s most romantic and lustrous music, sensual with an underpinning of darkness and a tension that haunts the listener long after the record’s stopped.  Many of the songs hinge on his thick pizzicato playing with what feels like arco lines dubbed in later, even after Courvoisier and Mori, who both play as beautifully as I’ve ever heard them (saying something for two musicians I easily have 20 records by).  A new high water mark for my favorite cellist, bar none.
  6. Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd, Holdin’ It Down: The Veterans Dreams’ Project  - Keeping the trend going, I’ve been a huge fan of both these artists since I first heard them, Welcome to the Afterfuture for Mike Ladd which came out when I was in college and his work with Burnt Sugar and Roscoe Mitchell for Vijay Iyer around the same time.  But possibly my favorite work for either is their collaborative work, starting with In What Language? still my favorite record to take on globalization and the implied class structure inherent in travel in a post-9/11 world even 10 years later.  And this third record in the series is the most moving, riveting work yet.  Transmuting interview materials from soldiers (including the voices of real veterans Lynn Hill and Maurice Decaul) and framing it in music including gorgeous jazz piano, the cello of Okkyung Lee, the crunch of classic era hip-hop (ably abetted by Guillermo Brown on drums and electronics and Kassa Overall on drums), Liberty Ellman’s guitar occasionally conjuring mainlined acid rock and creaking, woozy chamber music.  Music that dares to ask what we give our soldiers after we ask them to give up so much and how their dreams, literal and figurative, are changed in the wake of their homecoming.  I got this record a couple weeks after I finished reading David Finkel’s fantastic and harrowing Thank You For Your Service and they’ve complicated each other in my memory ever since.  I don’t think I can ask anything more of art or journalism.
  7. Mary Halvorson Septet, Illusionary Sea - My favorite jazz guitarist right now gets better with every single record.  Adding to her core group by degrees - first trio, then quintet, now septet - but deploying each of those additional colors judiciously.  And this expands on the very Horace Silver-ish stylings of the two Quintet albums but, perhaps cushioned by the the thickened low-end of Jacob Garchick on trombone and Ingrid Laubrock on second tenor, her guitar goes off in even spikier, more angular directions.  Deeper clarity in the writing and also a wilder imagination.  This record feels like a composer/player relationship (or, I guess, siv of them) hitting an apotheosis.  A record that makes me want to know what’s next and makes me want to cling to what’s now for a little longer.
  8. Oblivians, Desperation – I’ve commented more than once that the handful of times I’ve seen the Oblivians as a reunion act have blown the door off whatever venue and situation they’re in and their return to recording for the first album since 1997 is a perfect return to form.  A little older and wiser in some songs like Greg Cartwright’s “I’ll Be Gone” (maybe the best song he’s written, which is saying something) and  “Come a Little Closer” but with the snotty soul-punk charm undiminished on barn burners like Eric Friedl’s “Woke Up in a Police Car” and Jack Oblivian’s “Back Street Hangout”.  A band known almost as much for their record collecting as their songwriting, that pays off here with three stellar covers, especially Stephanie McDee’s zydeco/polka stomp “Call the Police”.  A record for cheap whiskey and dancing far longer than you should.
  9. Eric Revis Trio, City of Asylum - I saw this trio in a very cramped club (after waiting in line in the cold) at Winter Jazzfest and it was gripping but it took living with the record for a little while to really get a handle on it.  Eric Revis, who has been one of my absolute favorite jazz bassists of the last few years (also seen on this year’s phenomenal Tarbaby record that came very close to making this list) and assembling a trio with Kris Davis on piano (also on the Ingrid Laubrock Anti-House record) and one of my all-time favorite drummers, Andrew Cyrllie, is a match made in heaven.  Those three fit together like pieces of a puzzle you suddenly falling into place.  Davis has grown with power and intensity in every context I’ve seen her in over the last few years and she’s a marvel here, all splintering rhythm and deep melodic intensity.  And that melodic imagine is matched point for point by Revis whose imagination comes through in a more unfiltered way than on any of his earlier records and Cyrille’s sense of joy and gravity is the perfect foil, everything bouncing off of eveyrthing else, always connected to the world even in its deepest abstractions.
  10. Brandy Clark, 12 Stories – My god.  This record slapped me across the face and made my jaw slack.  The strongest writing for character and place and feeling I’ve heard in I don’t know how long, delivered by the kind of supple, expressive voice Nashville doesn’t have a lot of anymore. A truth-telling country record in the style of Tom T. Hall and Loretta Lynn and Kris Kristofferson, clearly pitched for the mainstream not the (also wonderful) limited audience of Guy Clark and Eliza Gilykson.  Perfect, warm playing and songs that sketch lives where no one is blameless but also no one is without hope. Clark wields detail like a Raymond Carver story deploying it with a wry sense of humor on songs like “Stripes” where the narrator only restrains herself from killing her cheating paramour because of the prison fashion choices and “Illegitimate Children” detailing a bar scene happening every night in America (and elsewhere).  And using that same specificity for maximum heartbreak on timeless weepers like the devastating “Just Like Him” and “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, maybe the best cheater’s ballad since “Dark End of the Street”.
  11. Jason Moran and Charles Lloyd, Hagar’s Song - Maybe the jazz record I played most, just a gorgeous duet record  going as deeply into melody as anything I heard all year.  Charles Lloyd’s gorgeous, singing lines and tone on tenor have a phenomenal showcase playing off Moran’s piano which goes into some surprising shadings and textures but also lays back a lot.  From the original suite that’s the titular piece and centerpiece of the record to joyous runs through everything from Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” to Gershwin’s “Bess, You Is my Woman Now” to Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” this is a tribute to American song as a river and a universe.
  12. Earl Sweatshirt, Doris – I was woefully out of the loop on new hip-hop this year but if you’d told me a couple years ago I’d have two records from the Odd Future camp on my year end list I don’t think I would’ve believed you.  Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris is an unflinching, stoic take on the pressures of society, family and the pressure on yourself to be great when it feels like so much is riding on you at such a young age.  Woozy, off-balance but infectious beats and a deadpan delivery plus very well-chosen guests make this one ear worm after another, with my favorite track being “Sunday” featuring Frank Ocean (rapping, not singing) with a hook about trying to deal with the light of clarity and lines like “What good is West Coast weather if you’re bipolar? / If I’m’a need this sweater / I’d rather be where it’s cold.”
  13. Robbie Fulks, Gone Away Backwards. - Before now, my favorite Robbie Fulks records were overstuffed, at times messy, explosions of genre like Couples in Trouble or Let’s Kill Saturday Night.  But his newest record, his most focused since Country Love Songs (I’m discounting the covers records), all small group acoustic playing and grim narratives about life barely clinging to the margins is a fucking punch in the gut and as close to a masterpiece as he’s made yet.  Focused around Fulks’ longtime collaborators Robbie Gjersoe on guitar (maybe the finest lead guitarist for this kind of music living today) and Jenny Scheinman on violin, augmented by Ron Spears on mandolin and Mike Bub on bass, not a note is out of place and nothing feels like the kind of forced flurry of notes that bluegrass can descend to, and Fulks’ voice and guitar have never sounded more assured.  In these songs he sketches out characters who are haunted by what or who they left or who they’ve become, drenched in a bitter irony that isn’t about shirking emotion but about filtering out the poisons that infect us all if we’re not vigilant and kill us little by little.
  14. John Paul Keith, Memphis Circa 3am – I worry whatever I’m going to say here sounds like damning with faint praise but rest assured this was one of the most satisfying listening experiences I had all year.  This is the best meat and potatoes rock record in recent memory, full of songs about the ease and the grit of finding yourself at the end of another long, boozy night produced beautifully by Roland Janes who has a resume going back to playing guitar for Billy Lee Riley and Jerry Lee Lewis, the perfect set of ears for capturing the essence of 1000 Memphis nights on the reels.  Keith’s third record with his band the One Four Fives takes everything good on the first two (and there was plenty good,The Man that Time Forgot especially is still in pretty heavy rotation around my house) and distills it down and opens it up.  Mark Edgar Stuart’s thick, melodic bass (also a fine Memphis singer-songwriter) and John Argroves heavy, swinging drumming fall right into place and lay down a bass for Keith’s uncommonly clear and soulful guitar and the best singing he’s ever laid on wax.
  15. Nadia Sirota, Baroque - Sirota doesn’t just evade the sophomore slump, she sailed far over it and kept flying.  For her second record she commissioned new pieces from some of the hottest composers working including Missy Mazzoli, Judd Greenstein and Nico Muhly and it’s my favorite record to write to of the whole year.  Her viola soars through different contexts, keeping that signature juggling of clarity and jaggedness while dipping over and under Valgeir Sigurosson and Paul Evans’ production and electronics or waltzing with organist James McVinnie on Shara Worden’s composition “From the Invisible to the Visible”, maybe the sexiest piece of music I heard all year.  This is a classical record about right now and a little bit of tomorrow (hat tip to John Logan) and I promise you there are hundreds of children playing viola in their school orchestra who are going to find this and it’ll light their fire to play for the rest of their lives.  In a generation we’re going to hear this record talked about as a key influence for players who are blowing us away.
  16. The Internet, Feel Good - A more sedate record than the first The Internet album, but while the hooks sneak up on you here Syd tha Kid and Matt Martian’s psych-quiet storm project is some of the sexiest most insidiously catchy music I heard all year.  In some ways this feels like the light to Nick Cave’s similarly thick, humid vibe-heavy record this year, Push the Sky Away, and it’s a similar kind of record I just wanted to crawl inside and curl up, there was always a melody to get stuck in my head and there was always something new to find in the textures.
  17. Ingrid Laubrock’s Anti-House, Strong Place - Just the other day A. and I were discussing our second NYC trip together where we saw some amazing music but what may have most strongly stuck in my head was an early Ingrid Laubrock show since moving to the states with Tom Rainey on drums and Mary Halvorson on guitar in the old Issue Project Room.  Years later, Laubrock’s transmuted that promise and raw energy into a refined, ass-kicking voice on her instrument and maybe my favorite quintet in jazz right now.  From the first track, “An Unfolding” which is like watching a sunrise through a spider web-cracked window this covers so many moods so deftly it’s sometimes hard to keep up with but it’s always worth the effort, any work you put into this record is more than rewarded..Rainey’s a rock in any group but he sounds particularly good here, keeping the band on rhythmic track and nudging it in less-expected directions and John Hebert on bass (also phenomenal on the Halvorson record that made this list) knows exactly where to slip in and where to lay back.  Kris Davis on piano and Mary Halvorson on guitar nudge each other and always have the perfect melodic counterpoint snapping the listener back to attention.  Just a goddamn fine band operating at the height of its powers.
  18. Charles Bradley, Victim of Love - Charles Bradley might be the finest retro soul singer of that generation working today and this record was his best appearance on record yet, Gospel shouts and raspy balladry wrung through soundscapes provided largely by the Menahan Street Band and longer, spikier songs, including highlights like “You Put the Flame on It” and the one-two record closing punch of “Hurricane” and “Through the Storm”.  Perfect songs perfectly tailored for the artist.
  19. Jace Clayton, The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner - One of my favorite artists, DJ/Rupture, recording an album under his own name that’s a take on two compositions - “Gay Guerrilla” and “Evil Nigger” - by the late, great Julius Eastman   The playing by David Friend and Emily Manzo is great, taking a few liberties with the score and using judicious editing and mic placement but keeping everything necessary intact and highlighting these works for multiple piano as still vibrant, alive art.
  20. Olivia Block, Karren - Easily the best injection of field recordings into an orchestra composition context with Block’s own icy electronics gluing it together.  A gorgeous, haunting album full of very subtle surprises.