Wednesday, January 26, 2011

R.I.P. - Charlie Louvin

Charlie Louvin, half of the famed country duo The Louvin Brothers, died early this morning of complications from pancreatic cancer at the age of 83.

Charlie Louvin was born Charles Elzer Loudermilk (J.D. is his cousin) in Henager, Alabama in 1927, three years after his brother Ira. Charlie and Ira worked in the fields on their family's farm and began singing together as teenagers. Their musical partnership ended in 1963 in no small part due to Ira's excessive drinking which made him unpredictable and often violent. Ironically, Ira was struck and killed by a drunk driver in 1965, not long after a warrant was issued for his own arrest on a DUI charge.

Charlie kept performing and releasing solo albums, including a quartet of highly acclaimed albums on the Tompkins Square label during the 2000s. Charlie kept making music til very near the end of his life; his last album, The Battle Rages On, was released on True North Records on November 9, 2010.

The Louvin Brothers' Christmas music has been a staple of my holiday mixes for years, and their music has never been far from my turntable, CD player or computer. Charlie will be missed.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

New Feelies Album On The Way + Tour Dates!

If you've followed this blog for long you know that I am very excited about the fact that The Feelies have reunited and have recorded a new album. With recording completed some details about the new album, Here Before, have emerged:
Legendary NJ avant-pop the Feelies have announced 2011 tour dates which will follow the release of a new studio album. After a 19 year break, the Feelies are back with Here Before an album of all new original material on Bar/None Records. The new album touches on different styles from the Feelies’ long history while adding new grooves and musical ideas to the mix. Electric and acoustic guitars melt together in archetypal Feelies fashion on songs like "Nobody Knows" and "Should be Gone." Elsewhere there are slabs of driving garage rock like "When You Know" and  "Time Is Right" and the down-tempo "Bluer Skies," and harmonically rich  "Later On."

     The dates are:
      Fri-May-13 Brooklyn, NY Bell House
      Sat-May-14 Cambridge, MA Middle East (downstairs)
      Fri-Jun-17 Philadelphia, PA World Café Live
      Sat-Jun-18 Washington, DC 9:30 Club

Here Before was recorded at Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey produced by Feelies founders Glenn Mercer and Bill Million. Besides Glenn on rhythm/lead guitar and lead vocals, and Bill on guitar and vocals, the album features Feelies mainstays Brenda Sauter (bass, vocals), Stanley Demeski (drums), and Dave Weckerman (percussion). The album will be released digitally as well as on CD and vinyl with a download card.
The release date for Here Before is 04/12/2011, which coincidentally is the same day as the Labour of Lust LP reissue. You can hear a preview track, "Should Be Gone," right now at Pitchfork. Life is good.

Nick Lowe - Labour Of Lust Reissued At Last

It was nearly three years ago that I lamented the fact that Nick Lowe's impossibly perfect second solo album, Labour Of Lust, was out-of-print. Since that time Yep Roc has continued reissuing classic Nick Lowe albums, and now I am happy to report a historic injustice has at long last been rectified as Labour Of Lust gets the deluxe reissue treatment:
As the bassist and primary songwriter for Brinsley Schwarz, Nick Lowe was one of the catalysts of the pub rock phenomenon in the early 1970s. As the co-founder and house producer at Stiff Records, he would help create the blueprint for the modern indie rock label and usher in British punk and new wave, helming historic recordings for The Damned, Elvis Costello, and The Pretenders. Here, his landmark second solo album Labour of Lust gets the deluxe reissue treatment, sporting an expanded 12pg. booklet with period photos, new essays and artwork by groundbreaking graphic artist Barney Bubbles.

The reissue also includes Nick's biggest US hit "Cruel To Be Kind," the originally U.K.-only "Endless Grey Ribbon" and U.S.-only "American Squirm" plus bonus B-side "Basing Street." Labour of Lust is the only of Lowe's solo albums to hold the distinction of featuring Nick's Rockpile cohorts Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner and Terry Williams on every track. Originally released in 1979 and out of print for nearly twenty years, the album has been remastered from the original source, reintroducing this masterpiece to a new generation of pop music obsessives.
It's hard to believe an absolute classic album such as this could have been out-of-print for so long.  CD reissue date is 03/15/2011 with an LP reissue to follow on 04/12/2011.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

R.I.P. - Don Kirshner

Don Kirshner (left) with Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

Don Kirshner died at the age of 76 on January 17th. Don was perhaps best known as the musical impresario behind the Monkees and later the Archies. At the time some joked that after the Monkees fired him, Don decided to work with a cartoon band because they couldn't (fire him, that is). But looking at Kirshner's career through this sort of rockist prism sells the man and his genius for spotting and nurturing songs and talent short.

First of all, there was much more to Kirshner's career than his role as a bubblegum impresario. He started off working closely with his friend, and fellow Bronx High School of Science alumnus, Bobby Darin. He co-founded (with Al Nevins of Three Suns fame) Aldon Music, one of the most important "Brill Building" music publishing companies. Writers employed by Aldon included Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill, Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller. A few of the hits that originated at Aldon include: "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," "Up On The Roof," "The Loco-Motion," "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do," "One Fine Day," "Walking In The Rain," "Stupid Cupid," "Uptown," "On Broadway," "We Got To Get Out of This Place" and (last but certainly not least) "Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)." Had he done nothing but co-found Aldon Music, Kirshner would be an important figure in 20th Century popular music.

But of course he did do more. Much more. He was hired by the producers of the Monkees to provide the pre-fab four with songs (which would be needed quickly due to the demands of television). The songs he provided them with, including "Last Train To Clarksville," "I'm A Believer," and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" are rightly remembered as some of the greatest hits of the era, regardless of who actually preformed on them. And while much has been made of the fact that, yes, The Monkees did actually have their own songwriting talent (especially Michael Nesmith), it is unlikely anyone would care were it not for the outstanding material Kirshner brought to the band in the first place.

The Monkees fired Kirshner after he released "A Little Bit Of Me, A Little Bit Of You" as a single without the band's permission. Arguments about artistic integrity aside, it should be pointed out that it was a great choice for a single and one of the best songs released under the band's name. And rockist revisionist history aside, it should also be pointed out that the Monkees' sales slid precipitously after they fired Kirshner. They may have released some fine music post-Kirshner, but the the hits mostly dried up.

Kirshner's next project, The Archies, never got any respect from the rock establishment (not that it needed any), but I would still put "Sugar, Sugar" on a short list for greatest songs of the sixties. And despite the fact that the Archies failed to have as many big hits as The Monkees, many of their songs ("Jingle Jangle," "Bang-Shang-A-Lang," "Everything's Alright," etc.) hold up better than much of the "serious" rock music that was being championed by the rock music critical establishment at the time.

From 1971 until 1982 Kirshner hosted ABC's Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, which introduced such punk and new wave acts as The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Devo, The New York Dolls, and The Police to American television audiences at a time when few other U.S. television and radio outlets would touch them.

Here is what Kirshner had to say about his days helping produce hits in The Brill Building:

"I believe that after I'm gone, my grandchildren will be whistling these tunes. Whether they know that I published them or not - they will be whistling these tunes the same as they do songs from My Fair Lady and Camelot, and these tunes will be part of American culture - they'll be used in movies and so on. Of all the legacies that I have given, personally to me it's very important that I was able to come out of the streets of Harlem, out of my dad's tailor shop, and have the ability to create an environment where this sound will be part of American and international culture forever."

Don Kirshner is survived by his wife of 50 years, Sheila, two sons and five grandchildren. Whistle one of the many tunes Don Kirshner helped bring to the public's consciousness in their honor.

Monday, January 17, 2011

John Gabriel Borkman at BAM

Marjorie and I went to Brooklyn this weekend to take in a performance of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman at BAM starring Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw and Lindsay Duncan. That is a lot of acting firepower on one very small, intimate stage, and of course we had a wonderful time. After the show Marjorie was lucky enough to get her picture taken with Alan Rickman, who is very generous with his fans.

This is the first time we've ever both spent the night way from our kids (Marjorie's Mom was nice enough to visit us in Rhode Island to watch them). It felt a little weird pretending to be grown ups for the weekend.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Lent For Promotional Use Only

"Lent for Promotional Use Only. Any Sale or Unauthorized Transfer is Prohibited and Void. Subject to Return Upon Demand by Owner. Acceptance of This Record Constitutes Agreement to the Above."

I always wondered about this statement. Did simply stamping it on a record or CD make it true? Can a record company really claim ownership of something forever just by putting a stamp on it that says it's theirs? Turns out, not so much. From the LA Times:

A Ninth Circuit appeals panel sided with consumer advocates today, upholding a lower court's ruling that a record company couldn't block the resale of used CDs just by marking them as "not for sale."
The case was brought by Universal Music Group against someone who was selling promo CDs on eBay, but the ruling is also good news for used record store owners who no longer have to worry that a rep from UMG is going to show up at their shop to "reclaim" a bunch of promo LPs and CDs. And I can rest a little easier knowing that my white-label promo copy of Richard Lloyd's Alchemy really does belong to me, despite what the stamp says.

Friday, January 07, 2011

2010 Music Industry Numbers

The recently released official 2010 music sales numbers have been released, and they continue to paint a picture of a music industry in serious decline. Overall album sales (including digital downloads) are down 12.7% overall. Digital album sales are up 13%, but that is not nearly enough to offset the 19% decline in physical album sales. Meanwhile digital track sales are up a paltry 1%.

Vinyl enthusiasts will likely crow about the massive "vinyl revival" underway due to a 14% rise in LP sales, but with 2.8 million LPs sold, this number still represents less than 1% of all albums sold in 2010. Vinyl remains nothing more than a niche product, and it in no way represents a solution to the music industry's current struggles. Anyone who tells you otherwise is delusional (and this is coming from someone with a collection of over 3,000 LPs).

So what is the solution? For that matter, what is the problem? Most in the music industry will be quick to point to illegal downloads. I suspect they are at least partly right, but the overall picture is more complicated. Illegal downloads have merely contributed to the widespread perception that the music industry no longer produces a product that is worth paying for. Failure to invest in catalog artists in favor of flavor-of-the-moment fluff has also contributed to this perception as well. When a product has a shelf life of two minutes, it's hard to convince people to pay for it.

I will be the first to admit that I do not know how to solve the problems currently facing the music industry. I do, however, think the equation is pretty simple. If the music industry wants to beat illegal downloads, they have to offer consumers something that is more convenient.

If you look at the history of recorded music, convenience has been the driving factor in every major technological or format shift starting with consumers adopting 78s over Edison cylinders, Columbia's 12" LPs over RCA's 7" 45s, compact cassettes over LPs, CDs over cassettes and LPs, and downloads over CDs. In each of these cases, price and sound quality were inevitably secondary to the drive toward greater convenience. Music industry execs need to stop thinking about how to get people to pay for downloads and start seriously considering what they can offer consumers that is more convenient.

One thing that would be more convenient than downloads (as I have suggested in the past) is a cloud based model where consumers pay a monthly subscription fee to access a virtually unlimited amount of music from a variety of devices. There may be other solutions as well. But what the music industry collectively needs to wrap its head around is that fact that if their industry is going to survive (and I don't think that is a given) downloads cannot be the end game. Inevitably something will supplant downloads, and it would be wise to think about what that something will be and (just as importantly) how to make money off it.

"Best" of 2010

I haven't done a "best albums of the year" list in a couple years. I thought about doing one again this year. Trouble is, I am no good at making lists, especially if it involves ranking things. And as I've noted in the past, lists like this inevitably tell you more about the person who made the list than about the quality of the music involved.

That said, I'm going to give it a go. But rather than a traditional list (in honor of the NFL's weekly injury reports) I have broken things down into three categories: probable, questionable and doubtful.

Probable: By "probable" I mean that these are the albums from 2010 that I think I will probably still be listening to in ten years or so. Or maybe not. Get back to me in ten years and I'll let you know.

Afrocubism - Afrocubism
This is what the Buena Vista Social Club project was originally supposed to sound like before the Malian musicians failed to obtain visas and were unable to participate. There have been many strong links between Malian and Cuban music over the years, with the influence traveling both ways. This is really a wonderful album and I highly recommend it.

Beach House - Teen Dream
As a kid one of my favorite times to visit the beach was during the winter. There was something spooky and lonely about a walk on an empty beach, and seeing the boardwalk with all the shops closed. But there were new things to be discovered too, like how the wind made patterns on the sand that you could never see in the summer because it had been trod upon by so many feet. And sometimes I'd even find a lonely shop open on the boardwalk in the middle of the winter, and that just felt kind of weird and special. That's the kind of beach feeling I get from Beach House. It doesn't hurt that they also remind me of one of my all-time favorite bands, Opal. Released on Sub-Pop, the third album by this Baltimore duo has received a fair amount of hype (eMusic made it their #1 album of the year) and justifiably so.

Bruce Springsteen - The Promise
Is it old music? Is it new music? Which parts are old and which parts are new? Who cares? It's great music and if it wasn't released when it should have been, I'm very glad to have these songs in finished form in 2010.

Edwyn Collins - Losing Sleep
Back in 2005 the former leader of Orange Juice suffered two cerebral hemorrhages resulting in aphasia (loss of speech ability). It was unknown whether Collins would ever speak again let alone record. For a time he could only repeat four things over and over again: "yes," "no," "Grace Maxwell" [the name of his wife] and the phrase "the possibilities are endless." So the fact that Collins released a new album in 2010 (his first to be recorded since his illness) is a minor miracle. The fact that it is one of the best of his career is a triumph of the human spirit. The possibilities are endless indeed.

Elizabeth Mitchell - Sunny Day
Some would say Elizabeth Mitchell (who with her husband Daniel Littleton are also members of Ida) makes "children's music." I prefer to think of it as "family music." Here is what I had to say about the album in a review I posted on Amazon:

Before we had a professional "recording industry"--and before it became "normal" for music to take the form of a shrink wrapped package, or a formless succession of digits downloaded to a computer--people would gather around in their homes or community spaces and play music amongst family, friends and neighbors. Some musicians were better than others, but the music helped bind them all together into a coherent community. Then came Edison cylinders, Victrolas, LPs, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, iPods, and other technologies that made pre-recorded music ever more easily accessible to consumers. Much beautiful music was created during this time, but as music making evolved (devolved?) into a monopolistic industry, something awful happened as became the exclusive domain of "professionals" and people stopped creating and sharing music in their own private lives (not entirely perhaps, but you get my point). While music was (and is) everywhere, it became less and less meaningful within the context of our daily lives and more like sonic wallpaper; something to distract us as we drive to work or multi-task on the computer.

Sunny Day is an album that in its beautiful simplicity harkens back to the feeling of that time before there was a music industry, and making music with family and friends seemed as natural (and necessary) as family meal time. It's a lovely album that creates a more deeply meaningful space for music in the lives of parents and their children than perhaps many of us are used to (or ready for). This is music made to be shared with the whole family, and I think it's really beautiful that it was made by a family. There is just such a special vibe to the whole album that simply would not be possible without the musical contributions and artistic input of Elizabeth's husband Daniel Littleton and their beautiful daughter Storey (not to mention friends like Levon Helm, Dan Zanes and Jon Langford). This is not just music for parents or children to sit and "listen" to, it's meant to be shared, and you and your kids should sing along and join in the fun. I have trouble understanding those here [referring to other Amazon reviewers] who have criticized Storey's contributions to this lovely album. Perhaps they don't understand, as Elizabeth and family do, that music is at its best when it is born of love and shared among family and friends.

While the music on this album looks back to the past in many ways, it is also perfect for our current moment in history (one that finds the recorded music industry of the 20th Century collapsing), and looks forward to a (hopefully better) future in which music is once again central to our daily lives, deeply meaningful, and shared and created within loving, supportive family and community environments. Thank you to Elizabeth, Daniel, Storey, and friends for showing us the way forward.

Laura Veirs - July Flame
I have to thank my friend Pete for turning me on to this album.

Pernice Brothers - Goodbye, Killer
When the last Pernice Brothers album, Live A Little, came out I think I was starting to feel a little burned out on Joe Pernice. It's not that I thought the album was bad, it's just that nothing about it particularly grabbed me. It happens. Goodbye, Killer on the other hand sunk into my consciousness right away and never let go. Maybe it was Ric Menck's drumming that made the difference. Oh, and the guys at Pitchfork hated it. What better reason could there be to love this album?

Robyn Hitchcock - Propellor Time
After more than three decades it would be easy to start taking Robyn Hitchcock for granted and leaving him off lists like this. That would be a mistake. Unlike many of his contemporaries Hitchcock is not releasing pale imitations of past glories. Propellor Time can stand proudly next to any album in his discography. Hitchcock has described this album as his "Basement Tapes" album. I don't really hear that, although his vocals on "The Afterlight" do have a certain "Yeah, Heavy and a Bottle of Bread" quality to them. Perhaps he had a nose full of puss when he recorded it? If I was ranking albums numerically, this would be a strong contender for #1.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - I Learned The Hard Way
Sharon just keeps on releasing great, classic soul albums that sound like they could have been recorded in 1973, but somehow manage to sound totally fresh and relevant in 2010. Sharon backs off the funk just a bit on The Hard Way, and some of the arrangements remind me a bit of classic Dionne Warwick. But Sharon's tough, soulful voice prevents even the possibility of things becoming too precious.

Sharon Van Etten -
I had not heard of Sharon Van Etten until I saw this album popping up on some year-end best-of lists. What a discovery. The first track "A Crime" might fool you into thinking you are in fairly conventional singer-songwriter territory. Van Etten strums a repeated guitar figure over confessional lyrics ("To say the things i want to say to you would be a crime/To admit I'm still in love with you, after all this time"). What kept me listening through the opening track was Van Etten's voice. She has a remarkable control over her vocals that makes me believe she must have some formal music training in her background, although her voice always sounds raw and honest, and never too "pretty." Things get much more interesting after the first track as the album builds in intensity, culminating with the penultimate track "One Day." The songs are without exception personal in nature and often deal with the more painful aspects of relationships, but Van Etten never sounds self-pitying (just honest). If you are only going to check out one new artist from 2010, make it Sharon Van Etten. Highly, highly recommended.

Stereolab - Not Music
I will admit that I got bored with Stereolab for a while. But 2008's Chemical Chords caught my ear, and though it was hard to say they were doing anything different than before, I really enjoyed it. Maybe it was a case of absence making the heart grown fonder. Not Music was mostly recorded at the same time as Chemical Chords, but mixed and edited later. Apparently Stereolab has taken a hiatus from touring and recording. If this is the last album the band releases, it is a fitting capstone to an extraordinary career. By turns accessible and experimental, it's everything you could want in a Stereolab album. Lætitia Sadier also released a solo album in 2010, but I have yet to hear it.

Teenage Fanclub - Shadows
Teenage Fanclub is another band that it would be too easy to take for granted. Years after being a somewhat over-hyped "next big thing" the band is releasing some of the best music of their career. Shadows has a softer quality to it than much of their past work, at times recalling the gentler moments on Love's Forever Changes, and it suits the wonderful songs on this album perfectly.

Tom Zé - Estudando A Bossa - Nordeste Plaza
I believe this album was originally released in Brazil in 2008 as part of the celebration of 50 years of Bossa Nova, but it wasn't released in the U.S. until 2010. Zé is not a Brazilian musician one typically associates with the Bossa Nova style, having earned fame as part of the more experimental and politically engaged Tropicália movement that began in the 1960s. The first part of the title translates as "Studying the bossa" (or perhaps "Studying the thing"), and Zé does show a surprising facility with the style which leads him to create some of the most easily accessible music of his career. Of course because this is Zé there are plenty of strange, almost psychedelic, flourishes and bits of dissonance one would not expect to hear on a João Gilberto album. I do not understand much Portuguese, but I get the sense that some of the lyrics are pretty weird (especially if the brief English lyrics sung by David Byrne are any indication). All of the songs are Zé originals, but each refers to a famous bossa nova song. If you have even a passing familiarity with Bossa Nova you will recognize the fragments of "How Insensitive" or "O Pato" that appear in songs like "Outra Insensatez, Poe!" and "Filho Do Pato." With Estudando A Bossa Zé has created a tribute to the Bossa Nova that is filled with love, but is totally devoid of reverence. In doing so, he has produced a work that makes a better case for the ongoing relevance of the style than a more traditional tribute possibly could have.

Questionable: "Questionable" doesn't mean I think these albums or bad, or even necessarily of any lesser quality than the ones I listed as "probable." Some of them I just haven't listened to enough times to make a real judgment. Others might take more time to fully sink in.

Belle & Sebastian - Write About Love
Grinderman - Grinderman 2
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan -
Johnny Cash -
American VI: Ain't No Grave
Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues
The New Pornographers -
The Posies -
Blood Candy
Sun Kil Moon -
Admiral Fell Promises
Tame Impala -
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - Mojo
Vampire Weekend-
The Vaselines -
Sex With An Ex

Doubtful: Again, "doubtful" doesn't mean I think something is bad. It's just that right now, from my vantage point in early 2011, I think it's doubtful that these are albums I'll be listening to ten years from now. Some of them are by favorite artists of mine. But when I'm in the mood for Elvis Costello in his rustic, Americana mode am I going to pull out National Ransom or King Of America? But any one of these albums is still worth hearing in my opinion.

Broken Bells - Broken Bells
Devo -
Something For Everybody
Dum Dum Girls -
I Will Be
Elvis Costello -
National Ransom
Mumford & Sons -
Sigh No More
Neil Young -
Le Noise
Richard Thompson -
Dream Attic
She & Him -
Volume Two
Sinking Ships -
Museum Quality Capture