Monday, January 25, 2010

My top five albums of 2009

It's a little late to put together a tops of 2009 list, but since I just started this blog, I felt like making one. Also, I'm home sick today. My criteria for this list are simply which albums I considered my most favorite. It couldn't truthfully be called a "best of" list, because I did not make an effort to listen to every critically acclaimed album of the year. That's not to say that I don't seek out new music, but I would rather give extra attention to the albums that I do really enjoy than try to listen to as many different albums as I possibly can. (Looking at my Rate Your Music account it appears I have about 30 2009 albums in my collection.) First, a few honorable mentions: Songbook by Family of the Year, Backspacer by Pearl Jam, The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists, and Sainthood by Tegan and Sara. Now, without further ado:

5. Afternoon Naps - Parade
Afternoon Naps - Parade
This album is twee pop at its finest, and we are lucky to have such a delightful band here in Cleveland. With ten songs and 31 minutes of music, Parade barely qualifies to be Afternoon Naps' first LP. It's also their most accomplished work. They expand their sound in several ways, even adding some disco influences on a couple tracks. It's still full of the great hooks and boy-girl vocals that made their previous EPs hard to resist. Key tracks: "Mitten Fingers," "Beach Bums," "Catholic School"

4. Mono - Hymn to the Immortal Wind
Mono - Hymn to the Immortal Wind
It's a Mono album. If you've listened to the band before, you have an idea of what you're getting. Some might see that as a bad thing, but on this album, they take their style of post-rock and execute it really, really well. Music doesn't get a whole lot more epic than these seven tracks. Key tracks: "Ashes in the Snow," "The Battle to Heaven"

3. Andrew Bird - Noble Beast
Andrew Bird - Noble Beast
Andrew Bird is an incredibly talented man. If you haven't seen one of his live shows, you should do so at the first opportunity. He has really created his own unique sound, notable for his superb vocals, his fantastic violin playing, and his amazing ability at whistling. The Mysterious Production of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha are very good albums, but Noble Beast tops them, and is the first one that I feel really does justice to his immense talents. Key tracks: "Anonanimal," "Oh No," "Not a Robot, but a Ghost"

2. Megafaun - Gather, Form and Fly
Megafaun - Gather, Form and Fly
I saw this band live over the summer, and I was mainly there to see Bowerbirds, but Megafaun blew me away. Their sound is a mix of experimental folk and more conventional folk rock with some country and bluegrass elements. They do it all very well, and their vocal harmonies are something to marvel at. Key tracks: "The Longest Day," "The Fade," "Kaufman's Ballad," "Guns"

1. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros - Up From Below
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros - Up From Below
I must say that the people who book the bands to play at The Spot at Case Western Reserve University have done a very good job. This merry folk rock troupe rolled into town for a show just as they were beginning to blow up in popularity. I personally had no familiarity with them before going, and it turned out to be possibly the best show I saw all year. With nine or ten musicians on stage, it's quite an impressive spectacle as they fill your ears with joyous music that would have been right at home in the late '60s. The live show sets a very high benchmark, which the album very nearly lives up to. If you haven't heard "Home," a duet that is surely one of the happiest love songs ever, go listen to it now. Key tracks: "Home," "Desert Song," "40 Day Dream," "Janglin"

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Woodpigeon: Die Stadt Muzikanten and Balladeer

It's unfortunate that Balladeer / To All the Guys I've Loved Before, the new album just released by Calgary band Woodpigeon, is likely to be largely overlooked. It's another collection of indie folk gems by Mark Hamilton, Woodpigeon's amazingly prolific and talented leader. This is a quieter album than Treasury Library Canada or Songbook, Woodpigeon's previous full-lengths. It's more reminiscent of the Houndstooth EP, with songs primarily driven by acoustic guitar and vocals, although additional flourishes from instruments like violin or clarinet are employed masterfully.

Hamilton has a knack for great melodies, and great lyrics to match. He conjures up some nice imagery in "So Hold": In a flat tin box/Your first letter to me, five years on/Didn't read what you wrote/Cuz I'm sure by now, it's not what I'd want. Album closer "Beth Jeans Sleepover" is just a really gorgeous song, while the haunting "An Entanglement of Weeds" deserves special mention. It clocks in at nearly seven minutes long and tells the tale of a twelve year old boy drowning after falling into a river while attempting to rescue his friend, recounting his thoughts as he realizes that he is going to die.

Why is this fantastic album almost undoubtedly going to receive little attention? Well, despite containing 12 songs and 44 minutes of all new material, Balladeer is merely a bonus disc attached to Woodpigeon's other new album, Die Stadt Muzikanten (did I mention that Mark Hamilton is very prolific??).

And while Balladeer is an excellent piece of work, Die Stadt Muzikanten does deserve top billing. It's a masterpiece, Woodpigeon's best album yet. I've previously written that the main elements that make Woodpigeon's music so appealing are the catchy melodies, lush instrumentation, and boy-girl harmonies that I can only describe as delicious. All of that is still present in spades. Die Stadt Muzikanten, though, just sounds bigger than any previous Woodpigeon release. While comparisons to artists like Belle and Sebastian or Sufjan Stevens may still be appropriate, Woodpigeon have really found their own sound here. They're equally adept at infectious chamber pop ("Empty-Hall Sing-Along," "Enchantee Janvier") and heart-achingly beautiful balladry ("Spirehouse," "Our Love is as Tall as the Calgary Tower"). They rock harder than they have in the past on "The Street Noise Gives You Away" and "My Denial in Argyle" (the most danceable Woodpigeon track yet). And I would be remiss to leave out a pair of nautically themed numbers. "Redbeard" is a clever song in which the protagonist hunts down a pirate who "stole and burned most everything, the life that I once knew," for the purpose of revenge, only to fall in love. "...And as the Ship Went Down, You'd Never Looked Finer" is a tour de force. It contains the most interesting arrangements and instrumentation on the album, building from a simple, repetitive percussion and piano intro to a rousing climax with violin, banjo, accordion, and stirring vocals playing key roles along the way. It's interesting that on both Balladeer and Die Stadt Muzikanten, a strong contender for the title of best track is about drowning - Colin Meloy would be proud.

Die Stadt Muzikanten can be streamed in full on Woodpigeon's website. The album won't be officially released in the U.S. until March, but is available to purchase from digital retailers, and the CD version can be ordered from Boompa. I would highly recommend the latter; the bonus disc alone is worth the price of admission, and Balladeer is only available with physical copies of the album.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Northern Chorus's final show and the power of music

Note: this was a journal entry I wrote on on June 30, 2008, about what may have been the very best concert I've ever attended. I'm reposting it here because (a) I think it was a pretty good journal (b) it will make my blog less empty and (c) damn, that was an amazing show.

A Northern Chorus have been one of my favorite bands for about two years. Over the course of four albums, the Hamilton, Ontario-based dream pop outfit excelled at creating lush soundscapes of rare beauty. No other band I know is quite like them. Low are a definite influence, although a better description of some of ANC's more epic tracks might be to take Explosions in the Sky and add some deeply stirring vocal and string parts. The bottom line is that, to my ears, A Northern Chorus had an unparalleled ability to create aural beauty. I first saw them in concert for free at my school in the spring of 2006. I had never heard of them before, and had only listened to a few songs prior to going to the show, but the experience was one of sheer bliss. Ever since, I hoped that they would play another show in Ohio, but it did not happen. When I found out via a MySpace blog post that they were calling it quits, I was saddened. The same post announced that they were playing two farewell shows, in Toronto on June 27 and Hamilton June 28. I immediately decided that, despite Hamilton being four hours away, I had to go to the final concert.

It was a very good decision. This concert was one of the most emotionally intense musical experiences of my life. The performance, lasting a good two hours when all was said and done, had all the grandeur of my previous ANC concert experience, along with a passion that could only come with a special occasion like this one. I was in the very front row, and could clearly see in the faces and body language of each member of the six-piece that they were deeply affected by the fact that they were playing their final show after all those years. They put their all into their instruments and voices, and the audience responded with enormous enthusiasm. The setlist was stunning, containing all of the songs that I most wanted to hear. It was dominated by tracks from their last album, The Millions Too Many, and 2005's Bitter Hands Resign. The latter is the most gorgeous album I have ever had the pleasure of hearing, and certainly in the running for my top five albums of all time. The former is not that far behind in my rankings. Thus, this setlist was quite pleasing to me. Several older standouts from 2003's Spirit Flags rounded out one of the greatest collections of songs I've ever heard at one show. They did not play anything from their debut, Before We All Go To Pieces. This did not actually bother me, because, while I like the album a lot, it does not quite compare to their other works. It doesn't have the same majestic quality that makes so many of A Northern Chorus's songs so breathtaking live.

The full setlist went as follows:

The Millions Too Many
Remembrance Day
Costa del Sol
Victory Parade
Red Carpet Blues
Let The Parrots Speak for Themselves
Ethic of the Pioneer
The Shepherd & the Chauffeur
Skeleton Keys
Candle Song 3 (Mojave 3 cover)
Fragile Day
Subjects & Matter
No Stations

*first encore*
Prisoners of Circumstance
The Canadian Shield

*second encore*
Louder Than Love

There were some great moments beyond the music itself, too, such as when guitarist/vocalist Stu Livingstone announced that his parents were there celebrating their 37th wedding anniversary. This got a nice round of applause from the audience. Another fun moment was the whole band, in between encores, taking a round of shots on the house.

(Cara, who went to the show with me, took these pictures.)

Things got really, really emotional during the encores. Tears were visible on the faces of the majority of band members. Cellist/vocalist Alex McMaster in particular was really breaking down.

A very surreal moment came after the first encore, when the band appeared ready to call the show over, but relented to audience demand for one last song, the last one that the band still had available to play of those they had rehearsed. Then it was discovered that the sound for the cello had just stopped working. After an incredible emotional display with what was supposed to be the last song, they were left to stand around on stage bantering for several minutes while fixes were attempted. Nothing worked, and finally Alex, visibly holding back her emotions, said something like "fuck the cello, I'll just sing" and they launched into one last epic performance.

It's hard to really put into words just how amazing an experience this concert was. In a way, it was profoundly sad. The reason for A Northern Chorus's breakup was not that they no longer liked each other, nor that they had no more desire to make music. It was that, financially, the band just wasn't working out, and after all those years this had taken too much of a toll. I'll certainly always consider them one of the most underappreciated bands I know. But while they never reached a particularly wide audience, the crowd at this show made it clear that their music was beloved.

And while this experience was at times a sad one, it was also profoundly exhilarating, life-affirming, even. Truly great live music has an effect on me that few other things do. For example, I saw WALL-E, the new Pixar movie, the previous night. It was stunning, gorgeous, unbelievably imaginative, and one of the best movies I've seen in my life. But its effect on me did not come close to this concert's. I will continue to wish that A Northern Chorus could go on making more of their wonderful music, but I'll also be eternally grateful that I got to be there for this, their unforgettable swan song.

Welcome to my humble blog

SO... I decided to start a blog.

Why, after having spent copious amounts of time on the Internet for the last, oh, half of my life, did I finally decide to take this momentous step?

I like writing. I don't spend as much time doing it as I used to. It probably wouldn't be a bad thing to write more. It's definitely true that I enjoy looking back on things I wrote in the past (like that prize-winning book from first grade, "The Fight for the Forestmen's Treasure," based on the adventures of my Lego people!), and I'm sure that, say, ten years from now, I'll like having a written record of some of my thoughts at this point in my life. And I might as well share them with the rest of the world, because hey, if no one reads the blog, no big loss, and if people do read it - well, most people like attention in one form or another, and I'm not unusual in that regard.

So, a little about me. I'm a graduate student who lives in Cleveland with my wonderful girlfriend Cara. (I am not very good at coming up with clever titles for things, so I shamelessly imitated hers for my blog.) Things I like include music, running, cycling, the outdoors in general, food, Cleveland... yes, I like Cleveland. A lot of people would probably find that a strange declaration, but there's a lot to like about the city I call home. To start, how about the great music scene, lots of amazing restaurants, and the fact that we have both a great metro parks system and a national park a 30-45 minute drive away?

What will I be writing about here? Probably a lot about music, along with whatever else I feel like. I've written some journals on my page, but I find the way their journal system is currently set up somewhat unsatisfactory. I will probably crosspost music-related entries here and there. Maybe I should have one catch-all blog and another music-specific blog? I'm not sure if there's really a reason to do that or not.

I guess that's all for my intro post. So welcome, and please enjoy your stay!