Townes is arguably the quintessential Americana album. Townes Van Zandt is Americana—not the culture industry’s Statuettes of Liberty and Fourth of July parades, but its people, especially its millions of restless outcasts. His songs conjure a culture’s icons: forlorn Edward Hopper loners, restless Melvillean vagabonds, and downcast Bukowskian couples. They often cite the geography to which they belong and are fleeing, from Texas and New Mexico to Cleveland and Greensboro. Their melodies and rhythms are as plucky as they are distraught. Americana is Steve Earle, too: an ex-con and an ex-junkie; an anti-death penalty, anti-landmine, and anti-war activist; an actor, writer, and singer. And Townes Van Zandt, dead in 1997, was Earle’s close friend. This album is a musical eulogy from one great U.S. singer-songwriter to another. It’s partly Van Zandt in his own words—his recurrent bewilderment with the universe and his small but surprisingly sustainable consolations in highways, smiles, wine, and one-night-stands. Yet it subtly interprets, expands, and salutes its subject through Earle’s signature scruff vocals, familiar repertoire of arrangements, and excellent vocal contributions from Justin Townes Earle, Tom Morello, and Allison Moorer.
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2009 was no slouch year for Raster-Noton, with excellent releases from label stalwart Alva Noto and Atom™’s (satirically) pretentious tribute to German electronic music. Best of them all was SND’s comeback album, Atavism, in which the glitch duo posed the question: just how minimal can minimal techno get and still be groovy? The answer, as it turns out, involves stripping away the reverb and percussive detritus that often marks the genre, instead focusing solely on a drastically limited palette of harshly digital sounds. Yet from this small bag of pads, kicks, and other hits, SND produced an album that becomes undeniably infectious through its obsessive repetitions. These 16 untitled tracks are the cleanest, sharpest edges in any electronic music ostensibly for dancing—everything has been sanitized and computer-sequenced. But, to paraphrase Carl Craig’s reaction to the similarly stark Kraftwerk, this is so stiff that it’s funky.
A considerable part of Serengeti’s outsider appeal has always been his choice of subject matter that exists under, or completely beyond, other rappers’ radars. It therefore seems fitting that Terradactyl achieves such excellence through using “off the grid” living as a creative premise. To execute the concept, Serengeti is joined again by Don’t Give Up collaborator Polyphonic, and the mixture of lyrical and musical/production chops is even more successful and cohesive this time around. A rarity like Terradactyl is especially precious at a point when the evolution of so-called underground hip-hop has resulted in a surfeit of rhymers saying nothing meaningful over quirky, lifeless beats. Beyond its superiority within the genre (and Anticon’s quality dominance in general), Terradactyl is significant for the many sociopolitical realities it reflects. Bearing the insight and expressive sweep of a city symphony documentary, the album is the year’s best use of hip-hop as a means of reflexive sociology, with Polyphonic’s production offering surprises around every corner of Seregeti’s vividly realized lyrical landscape.
Although the various strains of ambient music have their fans, it’s rare that a band crosses over, even to the extent of getting signed to a bigger label and having their album reviewed among the more common indie/rock fare out there. With Choral, Mountains not only crosses that threshold into the wider music fan consciousness, they prove they deserve to be there. After two stellar albums on their own label, their Thrill Jockey debut may be their best yet. Based around heavily manipulated acoustic guitar tones (but including everything from books to ice water as source material), the duo’s blissful drone feels fresh and oddly natural in a genre that at its worst can feel canned and disposable. Choral is by turns euphoric, pastoral, lysergic, and seething as well as a hundred other things, but it’s never for a second less than gorgeous.
Mika’s The Boy Who Knew Too Much is the natural follow-up to his Life in Cartoon Motion in that it carries over the same energy and exuberance of his debut while adding more depth to the songs. The album opens with the single “We Are Golden” and it may as well be “Grace Kelly” 2.0 in the best way possible. Mika’s crafted yet another instantly catchy and idiosyncratic melody into a great single. Falsettos and handclaps abound, along with terrific choruses resulting in an album of such exuberance that it defies the listener to not give in completely. The album jumps from Mika’s piano sing-alongs to the Caribbean-tinged “Blue Eyes” to the gospel choir-backed “Touches You” to a tender duet on “By the Time” with Imogen Heap. Mika’s strength lies in his ability to infuse so much joy into his music. Who else could make a song about hating the rain (“Rain”) sound so wildly happy? The Boy Who Knew Too Much is a true pop album in the best sense of the word and Mika remains poised as that rare songwriter who straddles the line between artistic experimentation and a true popular sensibility, all the while creating irresistible songs.