Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Totally Biased, Only Moderately Informed, By No Means Comprehensive, Completely Capricious Personal Favorites of 2013

I began by thinking of this post as a “best of” or “top of 2013” list, but that just seems too inaccurate. I know how much I don’t know about all the music that came out this year; so I’d be leaving off music/artists that would manifest themselves as dope-slaps later (see “how-the-hell-did-I-miss-them?” category). I also don’t want to get into noting music or artists from this year that “Yeah, I do know, but for me—ehhh, not so much.” Also, if all politics is local, certainly all music is local, too. So my perceptions are skewed both by concerts available to me here and the musicians based here.

So here instead are my “Totally Biased, Only Moderately Informed, By No Means Comprehensive, Completely Capricious Personal Favorites” of the year 2013.

Favorite New (more or less) Artists of 2013

Jake Bugg

What can I say—I’m getting nostalgic for some good old British punk. And he delivers it fresh, 2013 style, not frozen in some 1980s cryogenically preserved rehash. Two fingers and two thumbs up.

Valerie June

A voice like nothing else. If Valerie June met the devil and Robert Johnson at the crossroads, they’d be so darn charmed, one would offer to play backup and the other would happily just hand her success—no strings attached. And bake her a pie. 

Favorite How-the-Hell-Did-I-Miss-Them-Until-Now Artists of 2013

Frank Turner

This is the humiliating “what rock have you been hiding under?” category, but still it does seem like you’da thunk I would have run across Frank Turner’s name by now. At the ripe old age of 32, he’s practically an elder statesman. Or, as he might put it “God dammit Amy, were not kids any more.” Sorry, Frank.

Charlie Parr

Seriously, the man lives in my own state, has been a fixture for more than a decade, and literally I only seem to notice his name this year? There were teenagers at a recent performance who knew every word of this rootys blues artist’s songs. Teenagers. They didn’t even have iPods to listen to him on yet when he first started recording, for god’s sake.  Wakey wakey.

The National

Ok, they were on my mind with High Velvet, but even that was so far from their first rodeo that I’m thinking maybe I fell off my own bronco and suffered some sort of memory loss that I’m only now really paying attention. Trouble Will Find Me much more quickly than this blogger found The National. Hel-LOOOO—oooh.

Favorite Singles

Good and Gone (Frank Turner)

I frankly (ha!) could have picked any one of a number of titles off Tape Deck Heart, but there’s something about the wheels-on-road guitar strum and refrain “Sometimes the things you need are right back where you started from” that has you suddenly bursting out singing it at strange moments.
So fuck you Hollywood
For raising us on dreams of happy endings
In postcards of the prom kings and the prom queens
For teaching us that love was free and easy

No One Knows Nothing Anymore (Billy Bragg)

Bragg’s strengths are in poetry not pottery, he says, although both build something artistic and useful out of lumps of nothing. Ah, Nothing and Nothingness: cue quavering bass. I can’t get the simple yet well-krafted visual of a Zen Buddhist finding humanity frustratingly unfathomable from No One Knows Nothing out of my head—no matter how hard I bang said head against a wall. It’s been that kind of a political and personal year. But, of course, being Billy Bragg, he still turns “nothingness” into “hopeful new beginning.” I guess he just can’t help himself.

High up on a mountain top, somebody with a skinhead crop
Is thinking deep thoughts for us all.
Serenity is all around, but if you listen you can hear the sound
Of one head being banged against the wall.

But what if our ancestors had stayed up in the trees
Would we still be weighed down by these worries?

No one knows nothing anymore
Nobody really knows the score
Since nobody knows anything
s break it down and start again

What Doesn’t Kill You (Jake Bugg)

Something on this “Favorite Songs” list needs to be able to be cranked up to 11 and danced to hard, and this one certainly allows you to do that. It’s a simple lyric in some ways, yet a perfect, “well, welcome to the school of hard knocks” anthem that’s needed when you enter your 20s… and 30s…and 40s... and—you get the picture. (In that way, it’s similar to Turner’s Good and Gone, which sums it all up in one particularly tired “Oh, fuck you.”)
What doesnt kill ya?
What doesn
t hurt?
Sometimes you feel you
re up against the world
What doesn
t kill ya?
What doesn
t break?
This life it seems can bring you to your knees
You try you bleed, then finally you breathe.

Line of Fire (Junip)

One word: haunting. From the first time you heard it to the last time you heard it: haunting. I’m sure 20 years from now it will haunt us again, resurfacing on some film soundtrack or unearthed by some kid from the old folk’s record collection. Turns out not everything they listened to was total shite after all, eh kid?

If put to the test
Would you step back from the line of fire
Hold everything back
All emotions and desires

Convince yourself to be someone else
And hold back from the world
Your lack of confidence
What you choose to believe in
Dictates your rise or your fall

Good Friend (Cloud Cult)


“All I need is a good, good friend.” I can get behind that sentiment, and at this point we need something cheerful, don’t we? That said, there’s certainly still sadness to this song, but the chorus soars and lifts you up with it. I could have instead suggested as this song’s more melancholy twin the kidney punch that is Elephant by Jason Isbell. But since I’ve already got none of us knowing anything and the rest of us good and gone and in the line of fire and almost killed—well, I don’t want any potential readers too depressed to read on, so I’m sticking with Good Friend.

Some of us are laughing, while some of us are choking
Some of us cant change til every bone has been broken.
All the while the maker just sits there joking, You never really were alone.

All I need is a good good friend
To get me through this….   

With the exception of the Mermaid Avenue records, this is hands down Bragg’s best album since Don’t Try This at Home. Between then and now, he put out some solid music, positioned himself as much as a political writer at home as a musician, put on the mantle of godfather to a younger, up-and-coming pool of musicians (now referring to himself as “Uncle Billy” and “Folkie-wan Kenobi”). He’s also at this point a fully adopted member of the Americana clan. But for all that aging and evolving he sounds quite fundamentally and quintessentially Bill Bragg on Tooth and Nail. He jangles, he croons, he rocks, he twangs, he fist-pumps, he holds toes to the fire, he continues to unite us all.

From the itching-to-begin opening of January Song
I’m so tightly wound and tensioned
Feel just like a guitar string
Waiting to reveal emotions
Touch me and you’ll hear me sing

To the authority-challenging verses of No One Knows Nothing
Lets stop pretending
We can manage our way out of here.
s stop defending the indefensible.
s stop relying on
The lecturing of the experts
Whose spin just makes our plight incomprehensible.

To the equal parts flawed, faithful, and infuriating lover in several songs, including Swallow My Pride:
How can a man be strong
If he can’t even lift a telephone and say he’s wrong?

And of course the inspirational Bragg in Tomorrow’s Gonna Be a Better Day:
To the misanthropic, misbegotten merchants of gloom
Who look into their crystal balls and prophesize our doom,
Let the death knell chime, it’s the end of time
Let the cynics put their blinkers on and toast our decline
Don’t become demoralized by this chorus of complaint
It’s a sure sign that the old world is terminally quaint
Tomorrow’s going to be a better day
No matter what the siren voices say
Tomorrow’s gong to be a better day
We’re going to make it that way.

Let’s hope Mr. Bragg forgets the brutal tour schedule he’s given himself in 2013 and instead just remembers delivering a satisfying album in only 5 days (thanks to the clearly magical Joe Henry) and so (the hard part of the labor forgotten) delivers another bouncing baby bragg in 2014 or at least 2015. Five years is too long to wait. We’re not getting any younger, Uncle Billy.

I mean fuck, god damn, this album is good! Quite literally, “fuck” and “god damn” as Turner does use those words liberally on the album. My English major mind did at first make me want to say, Come on, Frank, use your big boy words, but FUCK GOD DAMN he DOES. O joy to find lyrics that are poetic and yet something youd shout and dance to. English major mind satisfied.

There are so many gems on here, whether in the stories told through the lyrics or the poetry of the lyrics, it’s hard to not just scan the whole booklet and link to it, but here are a few:

Plain Sailing Weather [extra points for referencing a favorite movie of mine]
Amelie lied to me: This was supposed to be easy. I found
The one damn person to help me fall asleep in the night.
But sleeping gets tiring, and dark reminds me of dying
And as long as this feeble heart is still beating, you will
Find me rushing through every room, switching on all the lights.

Tell Tale Signs
You know you kind of remind me of scars on my arms
That I hid as best I could, that I covered with ink, but in
The right kind of light they still bleed through,
Showing that there are some things I just can’t change
No matter what I do: the tell-tale signs of being used,
Of being trapped inside of you.

The Fisher King Blues
We were born without meaning, we will die without reason,
and the world will not shrug all that much at our passing.
Yes you can try and try and try.
But no one ever makes it out alive.

Broken Piano
I found the hulk, the rusting bulk
Of a shattered old piano.
Someone had torn out some of the keys
With cruel care, not thoughtlessly,
In such a way that one could only play
Minor melodies.
So I sat down in my sadness, beneath your window,
And played sad songs on the minor keys of a broken piano.

And hes willing to take risks musically, as he does in Broken Piano (whether due to hubris or hutzpah, but I’ll shortly establish I appreciate hutzpah). I dont think Ive heard something like Broken Piano dropped into what is essentially a rock album (for all his labeling by “real critics” as some sort of folk offshoot) since Jeff Buckley dropped a little something called Corpus Christi Carol smack between Lover, You Should Have Come Over and Eternal Life.

The imagery and lyricism of the song deserve the unusual vocal treatment. And kudos as well for making Broken Piano remind me of two other favorites Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key and (oh, how things can be tied together) Hallelujah (It goes like this, the fourth the fifth; the minor chord, the major lift...the baffled king composing hallelujah.)

I have long used the guide that if you like at least 3 songs off an album, you should get the album. That’s my tipping point. Invariably, I find on the album more great songs that haven’t made it into radio rotation. Of course, in these days of streaming, this is an old-fashioned notion all the way around. But my point here is that I don’t just like 3 or so songs off this album, I like all 12. Wait—who am I kidding?—I pretty much love all the songs on this album, and since mine is the one with bonus tracks, technically that number is 16.

The only thing missing from this album is a guarantee in writing—for instance, in a tattoo on his person—that Frank Turner will be putting out another such in 2014. Pretty please, Frank?

Pushin Against a Stone (Valerie June)

Elsewhere I gave a rundown of some issues I had had with this album, but when your criticism is that you love the persons voice so much that you want to hear it even more front-and-center thats not much of a criticism, now, is it?

Where to begin? I guess with Workin Womans Blues, since it starts the collection. I just love that this is that old blues style and yet so fresh—and coming from a woman. About time! Hey, if anybody knows the blues, its women. Step aside, boys, Valerie June is here. Tennessee Time and youre in another place, a little further north and more country, but also still in another time (Tennessee time, of course). You Cant Be Told yet another like nothing else / crank up the radio tune. And then the dark Shotgun—like I said, boys, step aside.

I skipped over several songs, as I’ve already reached my “more than 3 songs” threshold, but with the full intention of coming back to Somebody to Love, which you can hear not one but two ways on this collection. I think what would have been perfect would have been the arrangement of the original track two, but with the main vocal brought more forward as on the hidden (or twelfth) track. Not quite the same thing, as this is just a shared song title not the same song as Jefferson Airplane, but as Otis Redding purportedly said of Arethas Respect That girl stole my song.

If you need somebody (musically) to love, let me recommend Valerie June.

Very Honorable Mention: The Avett Brothers, The Magpie and the Dandelion

Having delivered I and Love and You and The Carpenter, and touring and touring and touring you’d think the bros would perhaps have nothing left to give as soon as 2013. But no, they crank out another gem (or, rather, discover it among the Carpenter sessions).

But perhaps what blows everything away is bassist Bob Crawford and his family’s circumstances, as their little girl Hallie fights brain cancer. If you think you’re having a rough day, check out this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9fK-sMm7ys#t=537. On the lighter side of Avett Brothers band parenting experiences, there’s this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAtFqDhV6As.

Three words that just get easier and easier to say about The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You.

Favorite Performances

Billy Bragg – Cedar Cultural Center (Sept)

Oh, yeah, big surprise there. I am unapologetically a big Billy Bragg fan, so of course that was my favorite show. I’ve already elsewhere noted that Bragg is to his fans as lembas are to hobbits traveling through Mordor: enheartening, delivering the strength to get up and live another day. And it’s not that he’s relentlessly cheerful. It’s more like he’s just … relentless. He’s a wide-eyed optimist but in a twist of that meaning “Eyes open wide, knows what he’s looking at, and yet still an optimist.” When he sang “Tomorrow’s gonna be a better day, we’re gonna make it that way” by golly everyone at the Cedar believed him. Still do, months later.

Bragg gets flack from various social media trolls that claim he’s now a sell-out and “champagne socialist,” living in a fancy house—but the man said clearly more than 30 years ago “I like toast as much as anyone, but not for breakfast, dinner, and tea.” Apparently, they weren’t listening then, either, to what he’s trying to say. Apparently some people’s interpretation of all people having a decent standard of living means…people aren’t supposed to have a decent standard of living??? Ok—that makes no sense, trolls. If the trolls did as much pro bono and sheer advocacy work in their entire lives as he does in a single week (including, as he had done that day, appear at a union rally at the U of M), the world would be a better place and we’d all be washing down our toast with champagne. Prost, Uncle Billy.

Anyway, he writes good songs, he tells good stories, and he gives you hope. There you have it—end of Rhapsody in Bill: Favorite Performance. Period.

Trip Shakespeare Reunion – New Standards Holiday Show (Dec)

I’m sure Elaine Harris’s family and friends love her, but I still bet not so many have yelled so loud just because she walked into a room as what happened at that first New Standards Twin Cities show this year. The guys have played together before, but it wasn’t a true reunion without Elaine as well—after a 20-year hiatus. And a lovely twist on the perennial performance of Snow Days at this show to have the originating band play it (although also fun to have Chan Poling guest-sing the bridge and lyric-drop his own recently  reunited (although we don’t know for how long) ‘80s band The Suburbs in the middle of it.

This “Favorite” is very much personal, as I was one of those people listening to Trip Shakespeare in the backs of tiny bars with crowds of perhaps 30-40 people, back in the late 80s. Substitute your own reunion memory you hopefully had yourself this year, and we’ll just smile nostalgically at each other as we each take our own “TripS” down memory lane.

Low – Rock the Garden (June)

This gets the award just for sheer hutzpah and it couldn’t have been all that easy to pull off. But perhaps I should explain, as news of the “Drone Not Drones” performance may not have reached you? I’m actually indebted to someone in the audience near me for confirming that, at the end of the “performance,” that is indeed what Alan Sparhawk said.

I will admit I was at first disappointed when I realized that all Low was intending to play was Do You Know How to Waltz turned into one long drone (yes, literally, just what would be normally described as drone, played by the 3 players, for their entire set), resulting in a big social media and local music scene brouhaha.  I had heard Sparhawk’s Retribution Gospel Choir several times but I had yet to actually hear Low perform (I know, I know—this blog is just one humiliating revelation after another), and I had been looking forward to it.

But it struck me while they were still droning on stage that perhaps I was actually seeing the most Low-like concert anyone was ever going to see: That this was perhaps the penultimate, what-better-captures-the-unique-entity-that-is-Low performance than this political statement. Plus, it looked like something of a performance feat to me. It had the feel of a jazz improvisation piece, sustained over about 20 minutes (as I can see from the video—I didn’t clock it myself at the time; I was busy staring and tilting my head from side to side like dogs do in TV commercials).

Honorable Mention: Valerie June – Cedar Cultural Center (Dec)

Did I already mention she is charming? And her voice is like nothing else? Yep, I guess I did. Catch her at a small venue while you still can.

Favorite Touching Concert Moment: 

Joe Henry (yep, guy who produced Billy Bragg’s album) performing a stripped-down Taken on the Chin, dedicated to Slim Dunlap’s wife. Somebody hand me a hankie. (The Dakota, 12/3)

Favorite Humorous Concert Moment:

Benson Ramsey’s (The Pines) journey to the center of the earth. Read the video setup I put in another blog post and play the video. What makes this so funny to me? Is it what he’s saying? Or how he’s saying it? Or how little it has to do with anything he was doing before or did after?  No, it’s the indulgent reaction of his fellow band members; that’s what really makes it for me. Goof ball.  (Cedar Cultural Center 11/22)

Favorite Ironic Concert Moment: 

Father John Misty, having just chastised the audience about being present in the moment rather than filming it and so got people to put away their cell phones, then turning around and asking if anybody had caught on their cell phone the freak boomerang shot to his forehead made by a demo CD flung on the stage by someone in the audience. Nope. Sorry, dude. Don’t worry, no Father John Mistys were harmed in the not-making of this film. (First Avenue 10/11)

Favorite Classy Concert Moment: 

Father John Misty not being mad about getting hit in the forehead as noted above. Of course the collective gasp of horror from the audience would have had some ameliorating effect; but still, he had the right to make at least a little fuss and chose instead to absolve the (probably also horrified) guy, and undoubtedly saved him from getting escorted from the building.

#1 Overall Favorite Concert Moment
(Technically, After-Concert-in-Autograph-Line Moment): 

Getting a hug from Billy Bragg (a very kind man; have I mentioned he’s a favorite of mine?). Technically a hug has nothing to do with music, except as a tangible, physical manifestation of how good music can make you feel.

And on that note, bring on 2014.

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