Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Playlist: November


  • Led Zeppelin—Celebration Day (2012)
  • Porcupine Tree—Octane Twisted (2012)
  • Big Wreck—Albatross (2012)
  • Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters—Live in Rio (official soundboard) (2012)
  • Peter Gabriel—Live at the Hollywood Bowl (official soundboard) (2012)
  • Genesis—Trick of the Tail (1976); Wind and the Wuthering (1976) 
  • Black Country Communion—Afterglow (2012)
  • Aerosmith—Music from Another Dimension! (2012)
  • Jethro Tull—Thick as a Brick (40th Anniversary reissue) (1972)

Playlist: October


  • Steven Wilson—Get All You Deserve (2012)
  • Tame Impala—Lonerism (2012)
  • Donald Fagen—Sunken Condos (2012)
  • Bat for Lashes—The Haunted Man (2012)
  • Paul Banks—Banks (2012)
  • Aerosmith—Music from Another Dimension (2012)
  • Gary Clark Jr.—Blak and Blu (2012) 
  • Steve Hackett—Genesis Revisited II (2012) 
  • Genesis—Foxtrot (1972); Live (1973) Saving England by the Pound (1973), Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
  • Grasscut—Unearth (2012)

Playlist: September

  • Marillion—Sounds that Can't Be Made. (2012)
  • Grizzly Bear—Shields (2012)
  • Swans—The Seer (2012) 
  • Steven Wilson—Get All You Deserve (DVD+CD) (2012)
  • Calexico—Algiers (2012) 
  • ZZ Top—La Futura (2012)
  • Gary Moore—Blues for Jimi (2012)
  • Elbow—Dead in the Boot (2012)
  • Rival Sons—Head Down (2012)
  • The Pineapple Thief—All the Wars (2012) 
  • Grasscut—Unearth (2012)
  • St. Vincent + David Byrne—Love this Giant (2012) 
  • Goldfrapp—Felt Mountain (2000)
  • Aziz Ibrahim—Rusholme Rock (2012)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Playlist: July

  • Jesca Hoop—The House that Jack Built (2012) 
  • Marillion—Best. Live. (2012)
  • Dirty Projectors—Swing Lo Magellan (2012)
  • Portico Quartet—Portico Quartet (2012) 
  • Sweet Billy Pilgrim—Crown and Treaty (2012)
  • Shawn Colvin—All Fall Down (2012) 
  • Clark—Iradelphic (2012)
  • Rush—Clockwork Angels (2012)
  • The Invisible—Rispah (2012)
  • Little Feat—Rooster Rag (2012)
  • Errors—Have Some Faith in Magic (2012)
  • Stone Roses—Very Best Of (2003) 
  • Clare and the Reasons—KR-51 (2012)
  • Sonny Landreth—Elemental Journey (2012)
  • XTC—Oranges & Lemons (1989)
  • King Crimson—Starless and Bible Black, 40th Anniversary Edition (1974)
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band—Everybody's Talkin' (Live) (2012)
  • Opeth—Blackwater Park (2001)
  • The Civil Wars—Live at Amoeba Records (2012)
  • Wye Oak—"Spiral" (2012)
  • Blur—"Under the Westway"/"Puritan" (2012) 
  • The Pineapple Thief—"Last Man Standing" (2012) 
  • Calexico—"Para" (2012) 
  • Tame Impala—"Apocalypse Dreams" (2012)
  • Marillion—"Power" (2012, see video, above)  
I've been super busy of late as I near the end of the second draft of my novel, The Lobster Thief. I've also been busy, as always, with the music journalism day job and have seen a couple of cracking gigs.


I recently wrote a feature about Marillion's upcoming album, Sounds that Can't Be Made, which you can read over at Rock Square (if you've never come across Marillion or if you only know them as the band that once had a hit with "Kayleigh," then the article will give you an introduction to a band that has showed me a better way of life). During the same interview with keyboard player Mark Kelly, he told a ribald story about a Marillion groupie, which you can read here. (Fun fact: The aforementioned incident inspired the line "the girl in the passing car" on the band's 1991 single, "Cover My Eyes.")

When Marillion played two concerts in Los Angeles late last month, they premiered two new songs from the album, "Power" and "Lucky Man." I enjoyed both of them, but I was was really taken with "Power." I'm smitten with the studio version, which the band just released to the Interwebs. (The video is at the very top of this blog.) Steve Hogarth packs more emotion into those few bars in the middle eight than most vocalists manage over the course of an entire album. Guitarist Steve Rothery told me that "Power" and "Lucky Man" aren't even close to the best songs on the album!

Marillion's two shows were stunning. Steve Hogarth's voice was perfect—he cleared the highest of notes without any difficulty at all! The first night concentrated on moodier tracks and the second night was more upbeat and more of a party. The second show opened with "Splintering Heart." Everyone stared at the stage, perplexed, because they could hear Hogarth singing the intro but he wasn't on stage. Then we spotted him up on the balcony of the venue singing next to the concertgoers up there before heading back down to the stage for the rest of the song. Very cool way to start a show!

Here's the setlist for night #1:

Here's the setlist for night #2:

I got to hang out with guitarist Steve Rothery for a couple of days and we visited the rock photography exhibition Who Shot Rock & Roll (more on that, below). I got to chat to all the band members at various times during that week, Steve Hogarth (here's my recent in-depth interview with him for PopMatters). Hogarth and I chatted about our shared love of Shearwater (also Steven Wilson's fave band of recent years after I introduced him to them).

If you've still not heard Shearwater's Animal Joy, the very best album of 2012 so far, here's a Soundcloud stream of the album:

Indeed, I got to see Shearwater play Los Angeles a few days ago. It was a very different kind of Shearwater experience to previous outings. Earlier tours featured trumpet, hammered dulcimer, glockenspiel, double bass, acoustic guitars whereas Jonathan's new lineup of the band is a full-on rock band intent on pinning your ears back with their power. So, not as subtle as previous tours - and I miss some of those additional colors - but as a kick-ass rock show I loved it. An incredibly tight band and Meiburg's voice was, yet again, astonishing in its range, power, and expressiveness. Still America's best band.


I recently covered the red-carpet premiere of Who Shot Rock & Roll, a tremendous exhibition of rock photography at the Annenburg Space for Photography here in Los Angeles. (Fun fact: the courtyard of the Annenburg is directly beneath the two skyscrapers pictured on cover of the YES album Going for the One.) You can read my report about the exhibition, and the special acoustic set by Heart to open the gala, over at Rock Square.


My wife and I recently caught a show by Shawn Colvin who is touring to promote her long-awaited new album, All Fall Down. I'm a longtime fan of this wonderfully talented singer-songwriter.

Her band featured Viktor Krauss (brother of Alison) on double bass and Buddy Miller on guitar. The hatted one added great textures and amplification to Shawn's songs with his black Gretsch and Dan Electro guitars. Colvin said that she's known Buddy since 1976 when they met in Austin.

I've been listening to Shawn's new album, All Fall Down, a lot these past days and it's good, though not on par with her best records. It's a very sparse and stripped down production and I miss the studio craft that John Leventhal brought to her previous records. There are a couple of killer songs on it, including the title track and lead single, which they performed. Another favorite is "The Neon Light of the Saints" (check it out on Spotify), which they didn't play. The trio played several other new songs, including "Anne of the Thousand Days" and "Seven Times the Charm," both of which are growers that reveal their manifold charms after a couple of listens.

Early highlights of the evening were "Trouble" and "The Facts About Jimmy" from A Small Repairs, both songs making a strong case for why Colvin can be an arresting talent when she's on top of her game. Great tunes and layered storytelling. One disappointment for me was that she didn't play any songs off her previous two records, These Four Walls and Whole New You. I would've loved to have heard the title tracks from both albums, and highlights such as "Tuff Enuff" and "Cinnamon Road" from These Four Walls and "Matter of Minutes" and "Another Plane Went Down" from Whole New You. Indeed, though there were up-tempo songs during the gig, especially the great "Sunny Came Home" (though "Get Out of This House" was sorely missed) Shawn played a hair too many sedate songs.

But there was ample compensation from many of the best songs from early in her career: "Steady On," "Polaroids," "Tennessee," "Diamond in the Rough," and "Shotgun Down the Avalanche." Shawn has an easy charm to her in chatting to the audience. The El Ray, with its red walls and beautiful red curtains, is a lovely venue. Probably 500 people in the audience (including Jackson Browne) which was surprising to me. Around 1996 she probably would have double the attendance. But Kim and I enjoyed the show and Kim was struck by how good her voice was live. Check out the single "All Fall Down" below and, on Spotify, seek out Viktor Krauss's cover version of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" featuring Shawn on vocals. Utterly spectacular. Viktor's a terrific guitarist.

I'm currently enjoying Shawn's just released memoir, Diamond in the Rough. She lived a life, and then some. The book chronicles her many relationship disasters and addictions. A friend of mine recalls a show she did a decade ago when she broke down midway through, crying buckets of tears while her daughter crawled around the stage. Thankfully, Shawn seems to be in a better place now and her good humor and wit made for an enjoyable show.


If you're not a fan of Rush, I won't try persuade you otherwise. They're a band people either adore or loathe. But, as a fan, I declare that Rush's Clockwork Angels is the trio's best album since Roll the Bones or Presto. This album has a cohesive feel and "sum of its parts" strength that that surpasses that of recent efforts and I enjoy every single song on it, even the lesser songs. To my ears, the album has at least four all-time great Rush songs: The title track, "Seven Cities of Gold," "Headlong Flight" and "The Garden." Incredible!

 If Clockwork Angels doesn't break new musical ground for the trio and doesn't quite surpass their best work of the mid '70s to early '80s, it nonetheless retreads older tropes with a dynamism and fire that puts the musicians' younger selves to shame. Indeed, it puts most youngsters to shame. Rush's scorched earth performances on this album makes the Foo Fighters sound like Barry Manilow. If I tried to play air drums to Neil on this record, I'd get carpel tunnel syndrome within a day. Astonishing performance. Geddy's bass is also the business. Alex's guitarwork is incendiary throughout and plays a classic Lifeson solo on the closing track.


I first heard about Jesca Hoop from David Baerwald (one of America's great unknown songwriters who produces infrequent solo albums and, in 1985, was one half of the duo David & David who only produced one album, the classic Boomtown). I was smitten by Jesca's debut record, Kismet, in 2007 and wrote this review:

 Tom Waits likens Jesca Hoop's music to "swimming in a lake at night." To see what he's getting at, dim the lights and fully immerse yourself in "Kismet," one of the year's most invigorating albums. Like Kate Bush and Björk, two primary influences here, Hoop orbits pop's fringes with an individualistic oeuvre that's simultaneously adventurous and accessible. On Hoop's debut, a surprise lurks around every verse. A melody will be floating serenely downstream and then suddenly plunge into a swirling eddy of choral harmonies and counterpoints, as on "Seed of Wonder" and "Dreams of the Hollow." Just as unpredictable: Hoop's lyrics, which range from straightforward ("Love Is All We Have," a lament about hurricane Katrina's devastation) to maddeningly abstract ("Intelligentactile 101," a supremely catchy tune that might make sense in "Alice in Wonderland"). From start to finish, a dazzling accomplishment. 

Not long after I'd discovered this Californian songwriter, Guy Garvey of Elbow (a band that I love) began to evangelize her talents. In fact, Garvey saved her career. Though Jesca can pen great hooky songs, they're unusual and she is a genuinely unusual and quirky person and her record label, Columbia, didn't know what to do with the record and so they barely promoted it and dropped her. Garvey encouraged her to relocate from her native California to Manchester where she could relaunch her career. Her second album, Hunting My Dress, included a duet with Garvey and was a deserved splash with the UK music press. Last year's EP, Snowglobe, was another triumph. (Listen to the spectral title track here.)  

Jesca is a big fan of Kate Bush and her fave album is The Dreaming, so that'll give you an idea where she's coming from. Yet she sounds nothing like Kate Bush as her sound is more avant-garde folk and pop and punk yet she shares Kate's leftfield imagination and willingness to dive into unusual and quirky areas. Here's a link to my feature length interview with her for Filter magazine circa the release of Hunting My Dress.

I haven't fully absorbed Jesca Hoop's new album, The House That Jack Built. My initial impression is that the album is very good. Take a listen to the lead single, "Born To," above. The song seems to have taken up a permanent residence in the space where my frontal lobe used to be. Another highlight, "Peacemaker," borrows from raga and shimmies and sways over its programmed groove. The indelible "Hospital" is the most poppy thing she's ever released. Alas, a few of the quieter tracks aren't quite as memorable as the acoustic-based tracks on last year's Snowglobe EP and I almost wish she'd held those tracks for the new album. The House That Jack Built has a strong finish. "Deeper Devastation" features a sparse guitar by Blake Mills and the very distinctive sound of Bulgarian background singers (see also, Kate Bush's The Sensual World for her use of Bulgarian folk singers). The closer, "When I'm Asleep," simply tickles the ears with its amazing chorus.


In 2009, the Mercury Prize for music in Britain drew my attention to two promising new bands, The Invisible and Sweet Billy Pilgrim. Both bands have just released their follow-up albums and, in both instances, they've more than delivered on their early promise. The Invisible is British band and they sound like a fusion of Radiohead and TV on the Radio. The new album, Rispah, is a great showcase for the deep, booming and soulful singer Dave Okumu. Rispah is all about the death of his mom, so hardly cheerful but very powerful. Check out the first single, "Protection," below, or download it free here.


Sweet Billy Pilgrim may not be for everyone. The band's singer and leader, Tim Elsenburg, sounds like an 80-year-old David Bowie at times. Personally, I think they're tremendous. Their new album Crown and Treaty (which received a 5 star review in Mojo magazine and has received great plaudits in Prog magazine) sounds like a collision between XTC and King Crimson. Take a listen to "Brugada"(above) and "Joyful Reunion" (below).

Next month is quiet for music releases, so I'll be telling you more about some of the new music I've just been sent by my pal Simon in the UK.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Spirit of Talk Talk

I was recently invited to contribute to a short piece to a new book about the seminal British art-rock band Talk Talk, which features contributions from band members of Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Weezer, Pink Floyd, Shearwater, Blur, Elbow, and many others.

Spirit of Talk Talk, a labor of love by longtime fan Toby Benjamin, collects James Marsh's distinctive artwork for the band ( and also features written contributions from an impressive array of musicians (here's a list: The book is anchored by extensive essay written by Chris Roberts, a great music journalist who first made his mark at Melody Maker and who is a musician in his own right. Here's more information about the book, which is released in September and is sure to sell out in pre-orders before then:

Toby Benjamin has also put together a companion piece to the book: A tribute album. Overseen by Benjamin and musical director Alan Wilder (Depeche Mode/Recoil), the double album is released in September on Fierce Panda and includes the following artists: King Creosote, Jason Lytle (Grandaddy), Zero 7, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), Joan As Police Woman, Alan Wilder (Recoil), White Lies, Sean Carey (Bon Iver) and Turin Brakes. Also contributing to the album are ex-Talk Talk collaborators Ian Curnow, David Rhodes, Gaynor Sadler and Martin Ditcham. (More details at:

 I contributed a piece about Talk Talk's influence on North American musicians to the book and also helped rope in contributions by Steve Hogarth of Marillion, Tim Bowness of No-Man, Richard Barbieri of Porcupine Tree/Japan, David Torn, and Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket/Mutual Appreciation Society. Until now, I've been making the assumption that you, dear reader, are aware of Talk Talk and its unique legacy. To this day, many people—especially in North America—only know Talk Talk for its early New Wave-style hits and have never come across the band's late-era musical transformation into a timeless art rock band. It's no exaggeration to say that Talk Talk's The Colour of Spring, Spirit of Eden, and Laughing Stock are profound works of art.

Quick history: In the early '80s, this British group started out seemingly in the same league as new wave synth bands like Spandau Ballet and Flock of Seagulls. Ok, not quite. Singer songwriter Mark Hollis always had a depth that distinguished the band even then. Their early albums sound very much of their time, but the title track of the group's third record, It's My Life (1984), was a hit and hinted at hidden depths. The turning point was 1986’s breakthrough, The Colour of Spring, a great album featuring stellar guitar work by Peter Gabriel's axeman, David Rhodes, and Robbie McIntosh of The Pretenders. Steve Winwood guested on organ. The album even yielded a minor hit, “Life's What You Make It,” a classic pop song that pivots on an impossibly hooky recurring piano motif. (See video up top.) On that album, Talk Talk had begun to strip away the synths in favor of a more organic sound.

Two years later, Spirit of Eden completed the band’s transformation. All the synths have been replaced by instruments such as guitar, piano, drums, clarinets, harmonium, bassoon, oboe, trumpet, and violins. The beautifully recorded album is at once atmospheric and textured without seeming cluttered and Baroque. It’s experimental, too.

You cannot tell that Spirit of Eden was recorded in the 1980s because it sounds so timeless. If Erik Satie had been a rock musician, this is the record he'd have made. It's a very dark album. Hollis, with his singularly unique and emotional voice, sounds like he'd be better off on a psychiatrist's couch than in a recording studio.

 As Alan McGee (who signed Oasis and Primal Scream) recently described it in The Guardian:

Spirit of Eden has not dated; it's remarkable how contemporary it sounds, anticipating post-rock, the Verve and Radiohead. It's the sound of an artist being given the keys to the kingdom and returning with art. Yet upon completion it was seen as utter commercial suicide, as if Duran Duran had released a krautrock, free jazz, gospel album after Notorious

In reappraising the album recently, Simon Harper of The Birmingham Post wrote:

Spirit of Eden is best described as a collection of compositions, sparse and spacious, than an album of conventional pop songs. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Even the concept of the traditional rock line-up is subverted on a record of such hushed beauty. Built upon layers of piano, organ, bass and guitar, it nevertheless takes in bassoon, oboe and clarinet, while “I Believe in You” features the Chelmsford Cathedral choir. Listening to its six tracks now, Spirit of Eden is still markedly alien-sounding; a feat which Radiohead have clearly tried to emulate, while coming nowhere near the spectral grace imagined by Mark Hollis. While the Cocteau Twins and various other 4AD bands have been roundly praised for their dream-pop collages, Talk Talk's contribution to the British rock canon has long been ignored. 

Tragically, this album is an example of an artistic success that was a commercial failure. Spirit of Eden was ahead of its time. The record company EMI didn't understand the record and they didn't hear a hit single. Hollis and co. had a messy divorce from EMI amid several lawsuits when the label released an album of dance remixes of the band’s songs.

Yet few records have been as influential. To this day, Talk Talk continues to be a band that finds fresh converts through word of mouth. For instance, Jonathan Meiburg, leader of the Texan art rock band Shearwater, recalls how he first heard Talk Talk when he stayed the night on a friend’s floor and awoke to the smell of fresh coffee and the sound of a record-player needle touching down on the timeless grooves of Spirit of Eden. To Meiburg, the sound of Mark Feltham’s overdriven harmonica cutting through the sonic fog of “The Rainbow” was a revelation. When he heard the forlorn lament of Hollis’s voice moments later, he was forever changed as a musician. Similarly, the likes of Elbow, Robert Plant, Doves, Radiohead, Sarah McLachlan, Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Sigur Rós and Bon Iver cite Talk Talk as a key influence.

Talk Talk made one more album after Spirit of Eden, a fine farewell titled Laughing Stock. To many, the album is the band’s very greatest and it further refined the sound of Spirit of Eden. Pitchfork awarded an exceptionally rare grade of 10/10 to the recent reissue and also named it the 11th best record of the 1990s. By the release of Laughing Stock, however, bassist Paul Webb had been marginalized. The record was largely the word of Hollis and producer/co-writer Tim Friese-Greene with contributions by drummer Lee Harris. It was inevitable, then, that Talk Talk would disband. The rhythm section of Lee Harris and Paul Webb formed the band O.rang. Producer Tim Friese-Greene, the unofficial fourth member of the group who co-wrote songs with Hollis from The Colour of Spring onward, started recording under the name Heligoland. Bass player Webb also hooked up with Beth Gibbons of Portishead and made a good album under the band name Rustin' Man.

Mark Hollis released one eponymously titled solo album in the mid '90s. It distilled Talk Talk’s sound to a purely acoustic, chamber-music sound record live in a studio with no overdubs. While that album lacks the melodic strengths of earlier Hollis work, it's an exquisite recording—you can hear the scrape of fingers on frets— and "A Life (1895 - 1915)" is one of his finest compositions. Not long after the release of his solo record, Hollis followed in the footsteps of the likes of J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee and Bill Watterson by retiring early and leading an entirely private life, shunning all interview requests. But, like those other creative geniuses, he has left an astonishing legacy.

Seek out Talk Talk’s last three albums. Listen to them loud and with the lights off….

UPDATE: I had a brain fart and initially wrote James Marsh's name as Richard - apologies for that and I have made that correction!

Friday, June 01, 2012

Playlist: May

Albums currently in rotation:

  • Jack White—Blunderbuss (2012) 
  • (See video of "Sixteen Saltines," above)
  • Bass Communion—Cenotaph (2011), Bass Communion 1 (2001)
  • Wye Oak—Civilian (2011)
  • Steven Wilson, Theo Travis, Dirk Serries, Sand Snowman, et alTF100 (2011)
  • O.S.I.—Office of Strategic Influence (2003)
  • King Crimson—Discipline (40th Anniversary Series remaster 2011), Vroom (1994)
  • Robert Plant—Manic Nirvana (1990)
  • The Tedeschi Trucks Band—Revelator (2011), Everybody's Talkin' - Live (2012)
  • Joe Bonamassa—Driving Towards the Daylight (2012)
  • Alison Krauss & Union Station—New Favorite (2001)
  • Keane—Strangeland (2012)
  • Trevor Rabin—Jacaranda (2012)
  • I Break Horses—Hearts(2011) 
  • The Gary Moore Band—Grinding Stone (1973)
  • Storm Corrosion—Storm Corrosion (2012)
  • Robert Plant & The Strange Space Shifters—Guildhall live (2012)
I've waited more than a decade for a new album by one of my all-time favorite guitarists, Trevor Rabin who is best known as the guitarist and principal songwriter in the band YES from 1983 to 1994. (Yep, he's the dude who wrote "Owner of a Lonely Heart.") His last solo record was 1989's Can't Look Away and his last rock record was YES's Talk in 1994.

Not that Rabin has idle over the years. Far from it. In fact, he's released an album or two -- sometimes even three -- every single year since he quit YES. Those albums are soundtrack records, usually for Jerry Bruckheimer movies such as Enemy of the State, Remember the Titans, The Scorceror's Apprentice, Gone In 60 Seconds, Armageddon, National Treasure and Get Smart. I've enjoyed many of the South African guitarist's compositions from those movies but I've missed his guitar playing which only occasionally makes an appearance on his soundtracks. Jacaranda isn't anything like Trevor's great back catalog of solo records or his work with YES. In fact, it's a purely instrumental record and it's gonna surprise a lot of people.

It's also going to confound a lot of listeners. A good friend of mine who is a big fan of Trevor Rabin hates this record. Personally, I love it and I've been playing it repeatedly for months ever since I received a promo copy of it. (I had the pleasure of interviewing Rabin for Rock Square and the interview will soon.)

Here's what's so interesting about this album: At one time, many YES fans accused Rabin of just being merely a flashy rock guitarist who lacked Steve Howe's diverse vocabulary of classical guitar, bluegrass, and jazz. Yet Jacaranda demonstrates that Rabin is virtuoso in all those areas, too, and is so much more than just a flashy rock guitarist. Jacaranda is a very unusual record that spans a wide range of influences (usually in just one song) ranging from traditional jazz guitar, bluegrass, progressive rock, classical music, jazz fusion, and hard rock.

For instance the second track, "Market Street," is a great summation of all those influences. It starts with a Carl Verheyen-style electric guitar riff and then segues into YES-style prog with tricky time changes (almost reminiscent of "I'm Running" from YES's Big Generator) before detouring into jazz guitar licks and then bluegrass dobro similar to that of Union Station's Jerry Douglas. All in the space of one track!

When the epic "Anderley Road" starts with jazz licks, you may wonder if you've stumbled into a Joe Pass record, but then it transforms into something that sounds almost like Chris Squire's "Fish" but with rootsy dobro guitar and then it goes into some pretty spacey jazz-rock guitar over jazz-y drumming and piano.

"Through the Tunnel" starts off as with tranquil piano and pastoral bluegrass guitar and then it works up a head of steam before the track shifts into some very recognizably Rabin-esque hard rock with a jazz rock section that is pure Jeff Beck-inspired stuff with fiery lead guitar. (Appropriately enough, Jeff Beck's former rhythm section, drummer Vinnie Coliauta and bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, guest on this track.) You can also hear the DNA of Rabin's solo work plus some elements of his adventurous YES stuff (such as "I'm Running," "Miracle of Life," "Endless Dream"). The guitarwork in this one gets my adrenaline pumping every time.

A few of the tracks, such as "Rescue," sound very soundtrack-y.

It's very far out stuff, bold and adventurous and unpredictable. Those hankering after some old-school Trevor Rabin will get a kick out of the track "Me and My Boy." (If the title is anything to go by, I assume that Trevor's son, Ryan, is on drums). It has a killer big rock riff. Truth be told, I'd worried that Rabin's formidable guitar skills may have waned since he left YES to compose movie scores, but Rabin's six-string gymnastics on this record are pretty kick ass.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Playlist: April

Albums currently in rotation:

  • No-Man—Love and Endings (2012) 
  • St. Vincent—The 4AD Sessions (2012)
  • The Mars Volta—Nocturniquet (2012)
  • Jack White—Blunderbuss (2012) 
  • Storm Corrosion—Storm Corrosion (2012)
  • Gotye—Breaking Mirrors (2012)
  • Joe Bonamassa—Driving Towards the Daylight (2012)
  • Bass Communion—Cenotaph (2011)
  • Steely Dan—Katy Lied (1974), The Royal Scam, (1976), Aja (1977)
  • The Aristocrats—The Aristocrats (2011)
  • The Shins—Port of Morrow (2012)
  • Anathema—Weather Systems (2012)
  • Miles Davis—Bitches Brew (1970)
  • Thin Lizzy—Black Rose deluxe edition reissue (1978)
  • Blur—Best Of (2000)
  • Trevor Rabin—Jacaranda (2012)
  • Radiohead—Kid A (2011) 
  • Jimi Hendrix—Electric Ladyland (1968)
  • John Wesley—The Lilypad Suite (2011 - Madfish edition. Thanks for sending, Wes!)
  • Butterfly Boucher—Butterfly Boucher (2012)
  • Amadou & Mariam—Folila (2012)


The theme of this month might as well be, "And now for something completely different."

Storm Corrosion is a collaboration between Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Blackfield, Bass Communion and, now, a burgeoning solo career) and Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth). If you've no idea who Steven Wilson is, here's a primer on the musician who is a genius. (That's not hyperbole.)

Mikael Akerfeldt, too, has finally been getting the recognition that he deserves, too. Pitchfork, of all sites, just wrote a glowing critical re-evaluation of Opeth's back catalog and awarded its albums uncommonly high grades.

Wilson and Akerfeldt's longtime friendship, which began when Wilson produced Opeth's Blackwater Park, has led to mutual guest appearances on Opeth and Porcupine Tree albums. But Storm Corrosion is their first proper project outside of those bands. It's a beautiful yet understated record that may underwhelm some listeners at first. It is filled with ye olde medieval folk influences -- see the music video above -- which means lots of classical guitar and flutes and woodwinds and orchestra and mellotron. Some genteel electric guitar solos in the mix, too. Very little percussion/drumming. Occasional avante-garde moments. Both men share vocals, usually during the same song, and their voices make for a very complementary pairing.

Don't expect the dramatic sharp shifts and contrasts of Opeth's Heritage and Grace for Drowning, though the songs often take detours such as the pleasingly unexpected maypole of rondelay vocals that pop up during "Drag Ropes" (see video, above), or the blackout of disharmony that briefly threatens to overtake the placid beauty of "Storm Corrosion." The album is very subtle. Listen closely to "Hag," for instance, for the insistent pulse of the hooky two-note bassline in background - it will stay with you long after the song has concluded.

Storm Corrosion demands one's undivided attention. Indeed, it has to be listened to very late at night with the lights off and with no other distractions -- without that curfew environment, the album doesn't work. It should come with a sticker that says "not to be listened to during daylight." But listened to in those conditions, and approached on its own terms rather than one's preconceptions, it's a beaut, especially if you love records such as Scott Walker's avant-garde masterpiece Tilt and David Sylvian's Approaching Silence. Comus looms large as a key influence. The stupendous final track, "Ljudett Inaan," is clearly influenced by Talk Talk's Laughing Stock, right down to the dead snare sound of the drums.

On the strength of Storm Corrosion, I hope this isn't a one-off project.

And while we're still on the topic of Steven Wilson... I've been enjoying a new live album by No-Man, a duo consisting of Wilson and singer and lyricist Tim Bowness.

I'm a big fan of No-Man's emotive art rock and the live album Love and Endings is a nice entry point into the band's wide-ranging styles. I recently conducted an extensive in-depth interview with Bowness about the history of No-Man and his many other side projects, which you can read here. This album is exclusively available at Burning Shed, which has a free MP3 of the No-Man track "Lighthouse" available. In the meantime, check out these two videos from the DVD which comes with the live album.


From one African to two others: I believe that everyone needs to have a bit of Amadou & Mariam in their record collection. The duo, a blind married couple from Mali, have found international success over their past three albums. New album Folila, which features memorable contributions from Nick Zimmer of the Yeah, Yeah Yeahs, Santigold, and Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, is their best album to date! As I wrote in my review of it, the album "can barely contain the joy."

Take a listen to "Wily Kataso" (featuring the guys from TV on the Radio) below.



At Steven Wilson's shows, I've been absolutely floored by the drumming of Marco Minnemann. He's right up there with the likes of Neil Peart, Gavin Harrison, Vinnie Colaiuta and Keith Carlock.

Friends of mine in Tel Aviv (hi Brian and Adam!) kindly sent me a CD by Marco's own band, a purely instrumental trio called The Aristocrats, who play hard rock and utterly insane jazz fusion. The guitarist, Guthrie Govan, has chops that would make even Steve Vai drop his guitar pick. (Watch Govan's mesmerizing fingers as he teaches guitar licks here and here and here.) Beautiful guitar tone, too. The Aristocrats are finishing up their world tour by playing two nights at the Alvas Showroom in San Pedro (Los Angeles harbor area) on June 2 and 3 where they will be doing a DVD shoot. I'll be there. Take a listen to the trio here and while you're on their site, download the free MP3 of a track called, erm, "Sweaty Knockers":

Monday, April 09, 2012

Playlist: March

Currently in rotation:

  • The Waterboys—Cloud of Sound (2012)
  • The Mars Volta—Nocturniquet (2012)
  • Steven Wilson—Catalog, Preserve, Amass (2012, pictured above)
  • Little Feat—Feats Don't Fail Me Now (1974)
  • Rush—Hemispheres (1978)
  • Paul Weller—Sonic Kicks (2012)
  • Thin Lizzy—Black Rose deluxe edition reissue (1978)
  • Low—C'mon acoustic EP (2011)
  • Jesca Hoop—Snowglobe (2011)
  • Led Zeppelin—Physical Graffiti (1975)
  • Trevor Rabin—Jacaranda (2012)
  • Storm Corrosion—Storm Corrosion (2012)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Joseph Arthur's awesome new album

I discovered that JOSEPH ARTHUR had released a new album, Redemption City, available from his website,, as free/donate as much as you wish download. (For the record, I paid $12 - don't forget that even starving-artist types need to eat!) It's a brave move on Joseph's part because it's not as if he's ever been a big-selling artist. Indeed, I've no idea how he pays the rent in Brooklyn other than stay out on the road on endless tour (which kind of defeats the point of paying rent in the first place). The fact that Redemption City is available as the option of a free download may tempt some people into thinking that the album is a throwaway or not worthy of a formal release. They'd be sorely mistaken....

Some background on Joseph. I first discovered Arthur in 2000 when he released his second album, Come to Where I'm From on the Real World label. Indeed, the Akron, Ohio, native was the only American recording artist signed to the world music label and that was at the personal behest of its founder, Peter Gabriel, who was so knocked out by Joseph Arthur's demos that he personally called him one day to sign him. (Joseph initially thought the call was a prank.) Come to Where I'm From, which was produced by T Bone Burnett before he became such a famous producer, isn't the most easy access point to Joseph's ouevre. It's often stubborn on the ears and quite bleak in outlook but the album has so much depth that it rewards those willing to venture out from the shallows. It boasts a number of very accessible songs, too, such as the "Chemical," a Beck-like rocker, "History," a hooky number with a staggering chorus that seems caught in a feedback loop, and "In the Sun," an acoustic mini anthem that has since been covered by Peter Gabriel, Chris Martin and Michael Stipe. But the song that absolutely floored me was "Invisible Hands," one of the most harrowing songs I've ever heard - and I mean that as a compliment. It's a song built on echoes and shadows in which Joseph sings on the edge of despair and, eventually, tips over it.

That year, I interviewed Joseph over the phone and it sounded as if I had woken him up. It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon. My friend David Browne, then head music critic over at Entertainment Weekly, rated Come to Where I'm From the best album of 2000. The followup album, Redemption's Son, was tremendous, too, if perhaps overly long. (Here's my review of it.) It spawned a minor hit in the form of  the lovely long song "Honey and the Moon" but, for starters, you really have to hear the title track.

By then, I was snapping up all of Joseph's releases (including his rare EPs and the UK version of Redemption's Son, which has several different songs) and I'd practically collar strangers at record stores and tell them they needed to check out America's great unheralded songwriter.

Alas, the masses had still yet to catch on. The first time I saw Joseph Arthur perform, which was at the Paradise club in Boston, was a show I'll never forget. The room was, at best, half full but Joseph used looping technology to record sounds and riffs and vocals to create an epic, yet highly intimate, sound. I was astonished at his creativity in using those loops to create such a textured sound. (When he abandoned his looping technology to just perform with an acoustic guitar on later tours, he was still good but those shows weren't nearly as good.) A painter with a predilection for painting ghastly skulls-like heads frozen in Edvard Munch-like screams (they're on his album covers), Joseph also occasionally painted while he sang on stage. Bet you've never seen anyone do that, have ya? When he sang "Invisible Hands" as a personal exorcism, he painted a vast canvas with one hand while holding the microphone with the other. Mesmerizing.

In 2004, Joseph Arthur released his masterpiece: Our Shadows Will Remain. It should have made him massive. Q magazine even ran a 4 star review that praised it as his potential breakthrough record. With its varied color palette of sounds and moods, and so many hooky songs, it was a stunning piece of work. The song "The Smile that Explodes" may not have the best of song titles but, trust me, it's great. Newly sober, Joseph quickly followed it up with another fine album, Nuclear Daydream.

Soon after, Joseph tired of creating auteur records and formed a band called The Lonely Astronauts which featured a drummer named G Whiz (really!) and a bassist in the form of a former super model (really!) Though their live shows were entertaining, I felt that the two studio albums were too loose and scrappy even though they each included one or two great songs. From there, I feel as if Joseph Arthur got a bad case of Ryan Adamitis - he started releasing vast amounts of material,often as individual songs on his website, without much self-editing. A succession of four EPs included a handful of wowzer moments (including long-awaited studio versions of old live numbers such as "She Paints Me Gold") but, to my ears, the quality control seemed to have slipped. I enjoyed his 2011 release, Graduation Ceremony, as well as his supergroup with Ben Harper and Dani Harrison, called Fistful of Mercy, and still enjoyed Joseph's shows yet I must admit that my interest in Joseph had waned. The early ardor was no longer there.

Until now.

Joseph's new album, Redemption City, has been three years in the making. This is no throwaway. It's hands-down his best album since Nuclear Daydream and it has an energy and vitality that comes from creating an album with your back to the wall. These are Joseph's strongest melodies in years. You'll want to hear the knock-out one-two punch of "Travel as Equals" and "Wasted Days" that open the album.

On this record, Joseph deploys his half-rap style of singing more than usual but also switches into his irresistible honeyed falsetto croon during the choruses. The dreamy album centerpiece, "I Miss the Zoo," crests with pretty guitar figure and major chords but it's Arthur's deadpan delivery that gives the song affecting pathos.

What's surprising about Redemption City is how danceable it often is. "No Surrender Comes from Free" mixes a stoner vibe with huge beats. There's an urban grit to the lyrics and grimy instrumentation that befits the album's title and theme. It's a very New York City record. By the time I got around to track 11, "You're not the Only One," I was just thrilled to hear Joseph Arthur create something this good. Oh, it's not a perfect record. At times one wishes that Redemption City had the diversity of moods and sounds that characterized Our Shadows Will Remain but, nevertheless, this is fine stuff.

It's a double album, by the way, and the second part consists of orphaned songs left on the cutting room floor. As Joseph explains on his website, you can choose to download just the main album or the double album. He wisely advises that listeners spend time with disc 1 before migrating to disc 2. I haven't even gotten to disc 2 yet as I am still enjoying the main course. I imagine the dessert will be quite special, too.

So, visit and tuck in. And if you like it, do donate a couple of bucks. Joseph Arthur may believe should art should be free, but it does cost him money!

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Playlist: February

Albums currently in rotation:
  • School of Seven Bells—Ghostory (2012)
  • Van Halen—A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
  • Air—Le Voyage Dans La Lune (2012)
  • Otis Taylor—Contraband (2012)
  • PJ Harvey & John Parish—A Man, A Woman Walked By (2009)
  • Marillion—Fugazi (1984)
  • Talk Talk—Natural History (1990), Asides Besides (1998)
  • Field Music—Plumb (2012)
  • Shearwater—Animal Joy (2012) 
  • Steve Hogarth + Richard Barbieri—Not the Weapon But the Hand (2012) 
  • Butterfly Boucher—BB (2012) 
  • Gary Clark Jr.—Night Lights EP (2011) 
  • No-Man—Love and Endings (2012)  
  • Slow Electric—Slow Electric (2011)  
  • Memories of Machines—Warm Winter (2011)  
  • Joseph Arthur—Redemption City (2012)
  • Sharon Van Etten—Tramp (2012)  
This month, whenever I open my portable CD case to choose one my latest albums, I feel as if I'm standing at the ice-cream counter at Baskin-Robbins. This year, the month of February offered up an uncommonly great wealth of new music with a bounty of great choices for my ears to choose from.

In January's playlist, I praised the latest album by SHEARWATER, which may just be the best album of 2012. Don't miss out on the incredible Animal Joy record, released mid February. I recently interviewed Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg for Under the Radar magazine, so keep an eye out for that. Here's the lead single's music video, which ends in a diabolically twisted twist.

The album that's really knocking me out at the moment is the new record by bluesman OTIS TAYLOR. It's called Contraband and it's stunning.

Colorado-based Otis Taylor is the most unconventional, and musically diverse, bluesman since Taj Mahal. For starters, his favorite instrument is the banjo. His ouevre, which he calls "trance blues," combines strong elements of jazz, rock, and African instrumentation. But it's Otis's voice that most entrances. It's a gruff yet soulful instrument with unique call-and-response phrasing that oscillates from ebb to riptide.

A thoughtful lyricist, Taylor is more interested in writing songs about green cards tragedies, men on the run from the Klu Klux Klan, and interacial love between children than the usual cliched blues songs about about cheating women, etc. Otis' new album, Contraband, takes its title from an article that appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Preservation magazine about runaway slaves who escaped to the Union lines at Fort Monroe, Va., during the civil war and were known as “contraband.” The slaves found themselves living in camps under conditions worse than life on the plantation.

Taylor defies the stereotypical bluesman in many other ways. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and has been married for over two decades. But, as he freely admits, he comes from an "avant-garde" family. Over the course of successive albums, the mixed-race musician has written songs about the lynching of his great grandfather, the gun-shot murder of his uncle, his mother’s drug bust for selling heroin and how “other woman” in his parent's marriage turned out to be his mother's lesbian lover.

Though Contraband includes many of the bluesman's regular collaborators—daughter Cassie on bass and backing vocals, Ron Miles on cornet—the music is more robust and vibrant than ever before. There's some gritty electric guitar soloing from Jon Paul Johnson, too, on several songs. One new element this time around is a choir of backing vocals on hooky songs such as "Devil's Gonna Lie" and "Banjo Boogie Blues." I would almost describe the choir as sounding like gospel singers except that the massed vocals sound earthier and secular rather saintly and church-like.

Taylor recorded his new album under dire circumstances. Prior to major back surgery for a softball-sized cyst connected to his liver and his spine, he spent says recording seven songs "just in case" even though he was in major pain. Result: even more intense performances than usual. "Lay on My Delta Bed" starts as a slow burn piece, Otis's voice circling the loops of a recurring banjo riff, and then, near the end suddenly becomes an inferno as his voice catches fire. Also great: "Open These Bars," an account of a black man lynched for looking at a white woman, is built on sparse licks of electric guitar, Otis's voice haunting its open spaces.

My favorite track on Contraband is called "Look to the Side." It's a deceptively simple song, just a banjo progression, light drums and a sympatico bassline.  But then Otis sings, "If I Follow the Earth, will it take me home?/If I follow the ocean, will it take me home?/ If I follow the stars, would I get lost?" The yearning in his voice is so ineffably sad that I feel profoundly moved by it. I've played over and over again in an effort to articulate its strange power. But that's the thing about magic: it can't be explained and, besides, isn't it better not to spoil it?

I own every one of Otis's releases since 2006's Definition of a Circle and I'd say Contraband is definitely his best album to date. In a nice touch, Taylor dedicated the album to regular collaborator, and my all-time favorite guitarist, Gary Moore, who died last year.

I previously interviewed Otis Taylor for PopMatters in 2009 and you can read it here.

The new VAN HALEN album defied my admittedly poor expectations. The truth is that the first single from the album, "Tattoo," didn't win me over at first. Check out the video for it, immediately below. Dave Lee Roth seems to be an audition for Dancing with the Stars while wearing farmer John overalls. It's a bit like watching your hammy old uncle trying to perform the moonwalk at a wedding. Alex Van Halen, meanwhile, seems to have modeled his comb over on Donald Trump's hair. Eddie looks splendidly cool as always but he can't seem to mime the words properly. Wolfie might wanna get his mom to hook him up with Jenny Craig.

Yet the song has grown on me since I first heard it. And the new album, A Different Kind of Truth, turns out to be kick-ass, old-school Van Halen. Take a listen to the likes of "Big River," "She's a Woman," "China Town," and "As Is": Eddie sounds like a wild animal who has just been let off the leash! Alex, who is one of those rare drummers who has such a signature style of drumming that he is instantly recognizable and has a sound all his own, also locks into some great syncopated, fusion-y stuff with Eddie on a few numbers. Diamond Dave was never a great singer but I love the winking humor he brings to the party.

I've always felt that Eddie Van Halen is a bit of a one-dimensional player and he can't do soulful, heart-on-strings stuff but he's always dazzling. (And his technique and tone can still floor me—check out this gobsmacking solo he played at the band's tour rehearsals at The Forum in L.A.) As good as it is, A Different Kind of Truth has two failings. The first is that the guitar solos, though fast and furious, aren't as memorable as one would expect from EVH. A pity because the songs are pretty hooky. The second weakness is that the album is all one gear, one slamming song to the next, which makes it a great record for the car but it could have used some variety in its pacing. Van Halen is a great way to feed your inner 16-year-old.

The new album by AIR is a return to form. I was underwhelmed by Air's past two records, Pocket Symphony and Love 2, which seemed creatively stale to me. As the Virgin Suicides soundtrack revealed, the French duo seem to do their best work when they're scoring movies. Perhaps that's why Le Voyage Dans La Lune—an imaginary soundtrack to Georges Méliès' classic sci-fi movie A Trip to the Moon—finds them fully rejuvenated.

The album features many of Air's characteristically blissful and whispy atmospherics—there's an instrumental called "Moon Fever" that is one of their most beautiful compositions—but there's also a more cacophonous edge than before (by Air's standards, that is). Take a listen to the lovely "Seven Stars," featuring the vocals of Victoria LeGrand of Beach House, below. There's a limited edition version of the album that includes a DVD of Méliès' still trippy movie. (A nice companion piece to Air's album is Martin Scorsese's delightful movie, Hugo, which is all about Méliès.)

(Bad pun alert # 1) I've been plumbing the depths of the new FIELD MUSIC record, which plays like one continuous track. Plumb isn't as epic as the Brewis brothers' previous opus, Measure,  and has about half the running length of its predecessor. But each song is typically ambitious with more ideas in a handful of minutes than songs double the length. Call it pocket prog. Indeed, Field Music are unabashed fans of progressive rock bands such as the great King Crimson and early Genesis. (Here's their guide to prog for MOJO magazine.) At times, the band's atypical, but always hooky, arrangements recall the sound of XTC, Camel and Genesis. The lead guitar owes much to Jimmy Page.

As music reviewer Andre Salles notes in his review of the album over at his great weekly review site, Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. (bookmark it!), Field Music's songs boast strong melodies yet, strangely, often fail to lodge in the memory banks. One exception on Plumb is "Choosing Sides," which boasts a great chorus that I've been humming all week.

(Bad pun alert # 2): My ears are currently ringing with the sounds of the new SCHOOL OF SEVEN BELLS album, Ghostory. The band rose out of the ashes of Secret Machines when multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Curtis hooked up with two gorgeous identical twin sisters, Claudia and Alejandra Deheza, and formed a dreampop outfit. But after the release of the band's second album, Disconnect from Desire, Claudia left the band. I worried about how that would affect the dynamic of the group as much of the sister's vocal harmonies were key to its sound. On the irresistable opening track, "The Night," you wouldn't know SVIIB was just a duo. Alejandra's vocals have been multi-tracked to replicate the band's typical sound.

"The Night" is my favorite on the album (download it as a free MP3 from Amoeba Records by going here and also grab a remix of the other lead single, "Lafaye," from Amoeba Records by going here. If you don't immediately see both songs, just go back and search the MP3 archives...)  Overall, it's a pretty strong record that benefits from the inclusion of an actual drummer laying down dance beats rather than a drum machine. "Low Times" is a great showcase for what the band does best: floaty vocals surfing a relentless electronic groove.

The danger with dreampop/shoegaze albums is the that all the edges tend to get smoothed out and, if you're not listening intently, the songs can slip pleasantly into the background. Indeed, Ghostory sags around tracks 5 and 6 before rallying for the thrilling final trio of songs, "Scavenger," "White Wind," and "When You Sing." Take a listen to "The Night" below.

Question: What happens when two members of my two favorite bands collaborate? Answer: My head explodes. This month, STEVE HOGARTH + RICHARD BARBIERI released an album titled Not the Weapon but the Hand. Hogarth is the lead singer in Marillion; Barbieri is the pioneering keyboard player in Porcupine Tree (and, before that, Japan). Barbieri, a close friend of Hogarth ever since he played keyboards on the singer's solo album Ice Cream Genius, initiated the project by sending along a series of instrumentals for the singer to write lyrics for.

I like to tell people that Marillion reach musical and emotional planes that most bands don't know exist. (If you go to Marillion's website, they will send you a fantastic 10-track sampler CD in exchange for an email address. Take a chance on it -- you may well be pleasantly surprised. Here's a link: Here's a link: On the site, plug headphones into your computer and take a listen to the songs—for starters, try "Afraid of Sunlight"—what an incredible chorus!)

One of the key ingredients that make the band so special is that Hogarth fearlessly lays himself emotionally bare with a voice that’s as beautifully unique as that of, say, Jeff Buckley or Robert Plant. The feeling in his voice and the band's music is so palpable that it’s clear there’s nothing fake about it.

Hogarth sings much differently on this album than he does with Marillion. He's more hushed and whispery than usual and it makes for a very intimate effect. My fave track, "Your Beautiful Face" is one of the most emotionally revealing things he's ever sung as he recounts an episode in his life in which a beautiful woman tried to seduce him but, to quote the lyric, "there was steel behind your eyes ... forged from cunning in your heart ... and dark ambition in your mind." (See the video below for Hogarth's account of what happened.) There's exquisite tension in the contrast between the sharp contrast between the warm ambiance of the music and the dark bitterness of the lyric. At the end of the song, Hogarth sings, "Your beautiful face has aged, lost its power/You must have known it wouldn't last forever/ I see it in your daughter/ She's a softer soul/ I guess it's not the weapon that does the damage/ but in whose hand it rests." Ouch!

As a keyboardist, Barbieri is the anti Rick Wakeman. Barbieri not only forgoes glittery capes on stage (Porcupine Tree’s keyboardist does, however, have more black items in his wardrobe than Elvira), but he’s also disinterested in showing off technique and technical facility. Instead, Barbieri uses keys to create an intricate kaleidoscope of moods, atmospheres, and melodies. His previous two solo albums, Stranger Inside and Things Buried, are both excellent instrumental records that showcase the musician's almost organic approach to electronic music. (Do your ears a favor and grab several free downloads from those albums over on Barbieri's website,

On Not the Weapon But the Hand, the keyboardist yet again conjures up spooky ambient moods and otherworldly spaces,aided and abetted by textural guitarwork by Dave Gregory (formerly of XTC and currently with Tin Spirits) and, one track, drums by Chris Maitland (ex Porcupine Tree). "Naked" and "Crack" are the best melodies here and the closer, "Lifting the Lid," should appeal to fans of latter-day Massive Attack. Overall the album most plays like a tone poem that transports its listeners into realms that are as unsettling as they are serene.

GARY CLARK JR., a 27-year-old African-American bluesman from Austin, is a star in the making and I can't wait to see him perform at Coachella this year. The bluesman is like a combo of Hendrix, Albert Collins, Freddie King & Prince. Here's Rolling Stone's review of his debut EP and here's a Wall Street Journal piece on him. Check out the riptide guitar on the title track of his EP "Bright Lights," which you can download for free here. The EP is very inexpensive. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Playlist: January

Albums currently in rotation:

  • Shearwater—Animal Joy (2012)
  • Amplifier—The Octopus (2011)
  • Craig Armstrong—Film Works 1995-2005 (2005)
  • Spiritualized—Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space (1997)
  • John Hammond Jr.—In Your Arms (2005)
  • Feist—Metals (2011)
  • Apparat—Devil's Walk (2011)
  • Mike Scott—Still Burning (1997)
  • David & David—Boomtown (1985)
  • Various Artists—Ahk-Toong Bay-bi, U2 tribute (2011)
  • Otis Taylor—Contraband (2012)
  • Field Music—Measure (2010) 
  • Little Feat—Feats Don't Fail Me Now (1974)
  • Crowded House—North American Travelogue (2010)
  • Led Zeppelin—Shepperton Studios Rehearsal (2007) 
  • Alison Krauss & Union Station—New Favorite (2001)
  • The Smiths—The Sound of The Smiths (2008)
Singles and EPs
  • Radiohead—The Daily Mail/Staircase (2011)
  • King Creosote & Jon Hopkins—Honest Words EP (2011)
  • Taylor Swift (feat. The Civil Wars)—Safe & Sound (2012) 
  • Pure Reason Revolution—Valour EP (2011)
  • School of Seven Bells—The Night (2012)
  • Sharon Van Etten—Serpents (2012)
  • Van Halen—Tattoo (2012) 
  • Porcelain Raft—Drifting in and Out (2012)
  • Chairlift—I Belong in Your Arms (2012)


I've been listening to a review copy of Shearwater's Animal Joy (to be released on Sub Pop, Feb 14.) for the past three months. Since I first discovered Shearwater in 2008, they've become one of my top five favorite bands of all time. Yes, they're that good. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that they are America's greatest band right now.

Shearwater is from Austin and they're hugely influenced by late-era Talk Talk. But, rather than mimicking the sound of Mark Hollis & co., they've taken that band's spirit (of Eden) and infused it into their Americana art rock.

Shearwater's past three albums, Palo Santo (2006), Rook (2008) and The Golden Archipelago (2010) are essential to your record collection. I never thought they'd surpass their masterpiece Rook, but Animal Joy is the band's best album to date. It's so good that it may well top my list of the best albums of 2012.

I'm not the only person who rates the album that highly. Last week, music critics Bob Boilen, Ann Powers, Stephen Thompson and Jacob Ganz selected the best new releases coming up over the next few months for NPR's All Things Considered.

Here's what Thompson, former Onion A.V. Club editor, said during the show, "I know what you're saying: This year, this 2012 we're talking about, it's still young. But I've now set my little placeholder for my album of the year and now everything I listen to will be trying to knock it off. A band I've talked about on this show that I love: Shearwater."

Animal Joy is a musical and lyrical departure from the past three albums. In fact, frontman Jonathan Meiburg told me that Animal Joy is almost the inverse of The Golden Archipelago. This one is more immediate, he said, and there aren't any strings or glocks on it; the rhythm section is high in the mix. There's less exotic instrumentation and the core sound is based around drums, bass, and guitars—though there's gorgeous harp on two songs and a bit of piano and minimalist keyboard—and so there's a palpable feel of momentum and energy that carries through the record from start to finish. (The album artwork reflects that departure—the same designers of the past two album covers have used a photo from the natural history museum of a taxidermied animal with big claws. It's a black and white cover but they've created a new red font for the band's name.)

It is Shearwater's most infectious set of tunes. The album's melodies and choruses are so strong that you'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite, though I'd nominate the following songs: "Dread Sovereign," "Pushing the River," "Believing Makes it Easy" and, especially a song called "Open Your Houses." There's an epic on it called "Insolence" that is the best thing they've ever done. Take a listen to the stellar first single, "Breaking the Yearlings" above (click on it for a free download).

What I love about Animal Joy is that it still sounds distinctly like a Shearwater album yet a wholly new iteration of the band's sound.

We live in an era in which most bands sound like echo-boxes of their influences. By contrast, I've always felt that one of Shearwater's many strengths is that you sound like no one else.

Take a listen to, and download for free, the lead single, from the widget at the top of the page.



For Christmas, my friend Simon in Manchester gave me a copy of Amplifier's album The Octopus. (For great music tips, follow Simon on Twitter at @sgort100.) I've been aware of Amplifier ever since I read Classic Rock Presents Prog's lead review of the double album but I never got around to checking them out. I've been missing out!

This record is fantastic and fans of the now defunct band Oceansize will love it. Indeed, Oceansize shared a camaraderie with fellow Mancunian band Amplifier, with the bands referring to each other as “brothers-in-amps.” Since the split of Oceansize, Durose has been touring with Amplifier as their second guitarist.

Amplifier's sound is more progressive than prog. It's often Sabbath heavy and with space rock and dark psychedelic influence. As a double album, The Octopus makes for pretty dense listening but they mostly pull it off thanks to great melodies.

This epic track, "Interstellar," is a great example of their sound. You'll have to wait a good 3 and a 1/2 minutes for the hooky chorus to kick in and each time the chorus returns it gets better and better and the song builds in intensity and fervor: Even better is "Trading Dark Matter on the Stock Exchange," with an almost jazzy, yet sinister, feel. And Muse would kill for the chorus that comes in mid way through "Minion's Song."

Try "Insect Song" (video above), which is available as a free download at