[11 November 2011]
PopMatters has holiday music gift ideas for everyone you love now – and all whom you hope to love in the New Year. No matter your Christmas presents budget—flush and fat or anemic and scrawny—no matter the taste of those you aim to please – classic and pretty as hell (like a ‘Queen’) or more like bunch of drunk girls with a ‘sound system’ (get it? No? see below)—we offer box sets and single CDs that are sure to ring true for all those beloved, tender ears, and maybe even make ‘em dance as funny as Thom Yorke. What follows is drawn from our nationally syndicated column for McClatchy/Tribune’s wires, PopMatters Picks, wherein some of our top music picks for 2011 are trumpeted throughout North America – and heard throughout the great big world of music, sweet music.
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Akinmusire combines three brilliant instrumental merits: a virtuosity of speed and fluency, an ability to generate new kinds of patterns and intervals, and a freshly conceived approach to sound. He doesn’t show off by playing fast and high, necessarily, but he moves like a ninja through an alleyway—slippery and precise, in front of you, then behind you, then beyond you. This is a jazz record to rave about and to push on your friends. It’s the product of a talent that should send shivers up every jazz fan’s spine. Akinmusire has been holding back, finding his voice, developing his band, and now he is here in full bloom.—Will Layman
This is a sprawling, ambitious album, incorporating world music on a somewhat prominent basis, and one that sees the band move more in a pop-oriented direction. It’s impressive for both its sense of experimentation and its attempts to be polarizing, in that it is a whack of a lot more commercial. That, for better or worse, can only mean one thing: There’s going to be a boatload of new fans that finally “get” Battles for the very first time when they hear Gloss Drop.—Zachary Houle
Though it’s an album of quiet dynamism with no audible screams, James Blake certainly tempts its close listeners to fall in. It belongs to that branch of avant-gardism, nee synthpop and soul (not so much dubstep), that invites in as it perplexes. This CD is every bit as challenging, forward-thinking, and interesting as Blake’s previous EPs. It just uses a more digestible template to achieve its ends.—Timothy Gabriele
The secret to Cults’ success is the way the group takes reference points that have been cited to death by now and breathes new life into them, putting a twisted twist on what only appears to be lovey-dovey girl-group pop through their edgy, inventive compositions and the effed-up romances Follin sings about. It might be easy to become a prisoner of the moment when it comes to a flavor-of-the-month like Cults, but this initial effort is one that shows off strong enough pop chops to win them their fair share of true believers, now and hereafter. -– Arnold Pan
This quintet was a group through and through, a unified unit that took the “free” experimentalism and tightened it up in twisting structures. Miles Davis, always the innovator, would stretch sound further with later groups, later sounds. But this, the second quintet, might be the last purely jazz sound we get from Miles, his final statement on the jazz music he’d grown up in and would soon outgrow.—Matt Fiander
The King Is Dead suggests that Colin Meloy and co. are starting to have fun again, or at least deciding to let us have fun. The new record shows a strong turnaround for the Decemberists, and it’s a relief. It’s good to have Meloy and his band settling back to Earth and writing songs for the sake of the songs themselves—having stopped so plainly swinging for the fences, they’ve pulled off a record more impressive for its consistency and quiet confidence than anything they’ve done in years.—Corey Beasley
If Neil Diamond is the Jewish Elvis, then Bang was his Sun Records. If Diamond wrote and performed with innate beat savvy, his arranger Artie Butler and producers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich made those beats explicit. Barry and Greenwich had discovered Diamond, and the authors of “Hanky Panky” knew how to bring songs to life. That’s them singing backup and clapping throughout these songs; their vocal arrangement on “Cherry, Cherry” is one of humanity’s proudest achievements. Among other Diamond classics, this set has “The Long Way Home”, a majestic song that barrels like a subway train. And the whole comp ends with “Shilo”, the first big Neil Diamond power ballad.—Josh Langhoff
This is an album about how people get damaged or changed by politics or bad love or good love or art or by simply existing, and how inescapable that is. EMA’s jaggedly alive work is some of the most interesting I’ve heard in years. Her music is terribly raw; she lays everything on the line— you can find the wailing laments of “Coda” or the complicated ache of “Marked” riveting or gauche. EMA, from the sadly unheralded Gowns, makes the kind of record 2011 needs and deserves, whether it knows it or not.—Ian Mather
Helplessness Blues is nearly perfect in its execution, and it’s endlessly beautiful. Fleet Foxes added depth to their sound without making it overly dark or sluggish, and Robin Pecknold’s songwriting is gaining confidence, taking on more intricate melodies and vocal harmonies without losing any immediate impact. The space between the echoing guitar and his lush vocals that opens “Montezuma” acts as a kind of blank canvas for the record, and it immediately gets colored with backing vocals, with more guitars, with Josh Tillman’s subtle but fundamental percussion.—Matthew Fiander
If there’s a blueprint for art-scarred eccentrics to follow that outlines how they can aspire to become top-of-the-charts divas that still maintain the quirks that made them distinctive, you could do worse than the one Florence Welch has drawn up. There’s a reason why Florence and the Machine seem as at ease rubbing shoulders with the haute couture jet set as getting remixed by au courant underground acts like the Weeknd and the xx, and that’s simply because Welch exudes such confidence in her singular aesthetic vision that she can be herself: Following the same muse on her sophomore effort Ceremonials, Welch is the kind of artist who takes the lead and lets others come along for the ride, rather than simply playing to the whims and trends of the marketplace or banking on gimmickry.—Arnold Pan
Allegedly a concept album about a teenager living in 2082, Channel Pressure is firmly rooted in the ‘80s of European and North American pop, soft-rock, and R&B, a time when synths still ruled and recorded voices came to us as if from some robotic ether. It’s an album that gets better with every play, especially with headphones, where each stutter, bend, warp, and pitchshift are discovered, and new subtleties become apparent. It’s a work of heroic heritage, reorganizing and reorganizing an era that is too often dismissed as sterile and empty.—Richard Elliott
Fountains of Wayne are like catnip to music nerds and rock critics. They produce albums full of catchy power-pop songs that put most of mainstream pop music to shame. Sky Full of Holes finds Fountains of Wayne back at the top of their game. From the rocking opener “The Summer Place” to the gentle closer “Cemetery Guns”, the album is full of great songs. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the bulk of their catalog and continues the band’s clinic on great songwriting.—Chris Conaton
Unlike past Girls’ outings, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is bracingly immediate. These are songs that are fully realized and lovable at first blush. When you listen to a Girls record, you get the sense that singer Christopher Owens is wide-eyed with wonder with the debris of popular music from decades past. That sense of yearning, loss and infatuation has led to a meticulousness and fascination that universally translates to its music. There are moments on this new album that point backwards to not only glam rock but the progressive sounds of monster ‘70s groups, including Pink Floyd.—Zachary Houle
Emmylou’s 21st solo studio album is a treat. Her writing is sharper and more focused than ever, favoring tight verses and distinct choruses, and she’s much improved as a lyricist. Producer Jay Joyce helps give it a warm, relatively unfussy sound, using just three musicians—Emmylou on acoustic guitar, Joyce and multi-instrumentalist Giles Reeves on everything else. The result: songs that still fill a lot of space—effects-laden guitars, a soft organ, the vocalist’s quintuple-tracked vocals, a broom—yet a relaxed record that never feels as though the producer is in the way.—Steve Leftridge
This much-buzzed Welsh trio took their sweet time making their full-length debut, and delivered fully on their promise. The result is a unique melding of several familiar styles that stands out among their many retro-fixated contemporaries as one that is richer and more distinct for not deriving from a single common denominator. The Big Roar is both an astonishingly confident record and one driven by the tension between the imposing weight that comes with standing on the shoulders of giants and the need to capture a particular moment in time and make it one’s own.—Jer Fairall
Every rendition here stacks up against their studio doppelgangers—and in several cases the band improves upon the album versions. Throughout, but particularly on performances of “Get Innocuous”, “Pow Pow”, and “Yr City Is a Sucker”, LCD’s Nancy Whang and Pat Mahoney demonstrate their indispensability, with the former delivering infectiously snarky backing vocals and the latter offering up hypnotically primal drumming. This is a magnificent swan song for one of the premiere acts—both in and outside of the studio—of the past ten years.—Eric Allen Been
“I Follow Rivers”, a standout song among an album (Wounded Rhymes) full of them, has Sweden’s Lykke Li in voyeur mode, tracing her intended lover as if he were a flowing river from start to sea. Yttling’s staccato guitar and hand-clap beat make the song pulse with the sexual energy of Li’s lyrics, all barely controlled restraint. “Love Out of Lust” swells with an aching beauty, Li’s breathy vocals begging her lover to take a chance with her: “We will live longer than I will, / We will be better than I was, / We can cross rivers with our will, / We can do better than I can.” Her candor is utterly disarming, a moment where the lovelorn tropes of pop music sound captivating and heartfelt in a way that doesn’t even approach the sentimental.—Corey Beasley
Sometimes, the best way to get over the past is to embrace it. Although it can be nearly impossible to outrun your history when your earliest material has defined you, Malkmus seems to have come to terms with his legacy, rather than bristling against it. Instead of being just a blast from the past, Mirror Traffic succeeds on its own terms. It’s not simply a heartening, satisfying nod back to the glory days with Pavement that made Malkmus who he is as an artist, but a reflection of what’s possible for him going forward.—Arnold Pan
This feels like a keen experiment, a thrilling lark, rather than what we might be used to. Usually, Buddy Miller concocts a reasonably rocking band sound that fuses country, gospel, rock, and pop songcraft into something focused and piquant. The Majestic Silver Strings is subtler, sneakier, often prettier, and certainly more varied. The litany of guests is wonderful—they justify the way the band makes every song different, molding its sensibility around different vocal personalities. The flux between Miller’s traditions, Bill Frisell’s textural impressionism, Greg Leisz’s muscle, and Marc Ribot’s feel for the peculiar is a constant thrill—but a bit of a challenge too.—Will Layman
John Darnielle, for years the lone permanent member of the Mountain Goats, knows how to apply horror imagery to music where it is unexpected and thus startling and effective for its sudden presence. Perhaps the most striking moment here is not one that offers anything new to Darnielle’s still-expanding sonic palette, but rather one that reaches back to the past. “Estate Sign Sale”, while far removed from the murky hiss of the pre-Tallahassee Mountain Goats, is driven by the kind of hard and furious strum that was standard practice in the old days, Darnielle’s acoustic guitar played with frantic speed-punk violence and matched with a gnarled intensity he has essentially retired in his vocal delivery since the more confrontational moments on We Shall All Be Healed.—Jer Fairall
Presentation and content go hand in hand, and Nirvana brought their rock anarchy and their pop sensibilities to a rocky but fruitful union on Nevermind. To hear the extras on the deluxe edition only confirms their meticulous approach. “Even in His Youth” is a fine b-side, as is “Curmudgeon”. They’ve both got the piss and vinegar, but neither dig their hooks in as deeply as anything on the record. An early version of “Aneurysm” here is excellent, but it comes off as a bit too dark for Nevermind. There are live tracks that show how the band honed their sound around this time, but perhaps the most instructive stuff comes on the second disc with the songs from the original Smart Studio sessions and boom box rehearsals. There are some notable outtakes here—like “Sappy” (another version was on No Alternative) and a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now”—but mostly it just shows these songs in embryonic forms. The hooks aren’t quite tightened yet, the guitar tones mostly uniform, the lyrics not quite sharp in places.
The raw power of the songs is there, but you need the finished product to see where these songs went, just how good they got when the band focused and polished them into gems. “Polly” perhaps shows best where the band was going. The album version is virtually unchanged from the Smart Studios take, complete with cymbal work from Bleach drummer Chad Channing. Its brittle acoustic sound insists that this is tossed off. But that faintly crashing cymbal, the layered vocals on the choruses, the way Novoselic’s bass comes into the mix—it all gives it away as something more. Like the rest of Nevermind, its elements are simple, but the way they are framed and delivered is deceptively intricate. The purity of rock music and the sweetness of pop. Cobain wasn’t making statements about these things; he was struggling with the want for both.—Matthew Fiander
Ozzy Obsourne’s two best albums have been spruced up yet again, but this time with much more exciting results. The special “Collectors Edition” box set, which is only available through Ozzy’s official site, is the real draw. The 30 Years documentary is enjoyable, but at 42 minutes, could have been longer. Whether you choose to buy the individual albums or splurge on the $150 box set, the Osbourne camp and Sony Music have done an admirable job putting together a reissue package that does these albums justice.—Adrien Begrand
Pink Floyd occupies a curious and somewhat unique place in rock history. Certainly it would seem ludicrous to suggest that this celebrated band has not received sufficient attention. Still, most of their approbation has been focused, not unjustly, around the streak of albums they made starting with 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon through 1979’s The Wall. That these works are among the best-loved and best-selling of all time is not a matter of dispute. That this run ended just after (or just before, depending on your perspective) Roger Waters’ exodus—a move he considered the de facto final act of the band’s career (he was wrong as it turned out)—and set the stage for more than two decades of bad blood, recriminations and music that, to put it charitably, does not sit comfortably on the shelf with what came before, is pretty well established fact.
As such, Floyd became infamous for the feuding and ever-bloated arena tours, and not since the Beatles (or possibly Led Zeppelin) has such anxiety, hope and expectation been wasted deliberating whether a reunion—however strained—was inevitable. In the meantime, the work the band did before Dark Side has tended to get overlooked or else dismissed as middling by people who have never provided much evidence that they’ve bothered to listen to the albums in question.
With the possible exception of their 1967 debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which featured original songwriter Syd Barrett, and Meddle, which preceded—and anticipated—Dark Side, the first band in space’s early output has existed in a critical (if not commercial) black hole. This can’t be helped, but it could be rectified. And so: the occasion of yet another exhaustive reissue campaign should provide necessary incentive for some exploration by the uninitiated.—Sean Murphy
A prosperous genre in the UK, British rap is largely overlooked in the US. Not all is merry and gay in England; the amount of hoodies, chavs, and ASBOS (Anti-Social Behavior Orders) alone make a convincing enough argument for chronicles of inner city British life. Despite its big soul sound, this album is far from being a suitable dinner party soundtrack. If 2011 proves to be a year in which promising artists get their due respects, then this CD will provide Plan B with US success. Anyone enamored of nu-soul, strong story telling, and the darker side of British culture has already been rewarded.—Maria Schurr
Presently being reissued in several editions for its 20th anniversary, Screamadelica remains the most rewarding, most enduring evidence of the variety of sounds that could be folded into early ‘90s dance music. It’s an exceptionally well-crafted album, wasting not one moment in its journey through numerous strands of popular music. A testament to rule breaking and genre bending, the album is that rare kind of pastiche that elevates what it imitates, and in the process, innovates.—Thomas Britt
Boasting sales of more than 300 million albums worldwide and responsible for enough classic songs to spill over multiple best-of compilations, Queen belongs in this most rarefied category of rock excellence. Beloved by countless fans the world over, but not always treated kindly by critics during its heyday (the band’s gleeful embrace of musical excess and stadium-sized showmanship was particularly an affront when punk reared its spiky head in the late 1970s), the British quartet has seen its cultural cache steadily increase decade after decade. Nearly 20 years following the death of singer Freddie Mercury, Queen is now rightfully regarded as true rock royalty. To mark the band’s 40th anniversary, Queen’s label Hollywood is in the process of issuing remastered editions of the quartet’s entire catalog in three waves.—AJ Ramirez
With the release of this two-disc best-of and rarities compilation, the Swedish indie-pop veterans ride the momentum they’ve gained from their spectacular 2010 album, Clinging to a Scheme. Some of the album’s best social commentary is offered in the samples, when the band tugs at the roots of rebellion in hip-hop and rock. It’s easy to listen to Passive Aggressive—whether you’re new to the band or not—and conclude that the Radio Dept. will spend the next 15 years churning out much of the same great songs, however infrequent the output is.—Freeden Ouer
Radiohead may or may not be the best or biggest band in the world, but it’s the most enigmatic act around. Radiohead’s paradoxical nature and contrarian attitude might have more to say about the band’s music and its reception than it does the group’s ingeniously (anti-)media campaigns, which continue to rewrite the book on publicity in the digital age precisely by eschewing and disdaining self-promotion. The less fuss Radiohead makes about itself, the more of a cultural phenomenon the albums become. There’s no way any other band could release something as dense, complex, and abstract as The King of Limbs to as much hubbub, fanfare, and warm adoration.—Arnold Pan
This is a must-listen rock record that is too often overshadowed by more chatted-about releases. History will always deem Murmur and Document to be the I.R.S. Records-era R.E.M. albums of note. Yet Life’s Rich Pageant should not be glossed over, for it’s a stunner, a consistently impressive work that deserves its rightful place not only in any tally of the best R.E.M. LPs, but in any evaluation of the preeminent guitar-based recordings of the ‘80s. Indeed, it might very well be the best R.E.M. album from the ‘80s.—AJ Ramirez
For anyone who experienced the classic era when those shoegaze bands seemed to be exploding out of the UK at a ridiculous rate, there’s a familiarity to Ringo Deathstarr that is damn near irresistible. This isn’t simply a young band pandering to Gen-X nostalgia—let’s leave that to the unfortunately-named Yuck – this is a case of a group of musicians who clearly have a strong, sincere devotion to a classic sound, and they pull it off with surprising grace.—Adrien Begrand
Microbiologists create recombinant DNA by combining genetic sequences with special traits that may complement each other, but do not naturally occur together, to create a new and improved product. Saadiq performs an analogous task with his musical compositions, connecting tropes and strophes from classic soul and Motown to make original music that would cause its most celebrated inspirations (Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder) to beam with pride. Saadiq not only wrote and produced his latest solo disc, but also sings lead and plays bass, mellotron, keys, guitar, percussion, and even drums on most of the tracks. There’s not a false step or a dull note to be heard.—Steve Horowitz
Black Up is an album of disparate parts—smooth jazz sounds cut into sharp bursts, Ishmael Butler’s intricate flow over stuttering sonic landscapes, spacey beats clustered up by buzzing sounds—but Digible Planets’s Butler somehow wrangles them all together into an impressive and deeply satisfying whole. This album has brilliant sound, and it’s as arresting to listen to as it is to puzzle over. If it’s a hip-hop album—and that’s a big “if”—then it’s the finest one yet this year.—Matthew Fiander
Marble Son is a body possessed by two spirits: a heartbreakin’ sweetheart who leads you through an enchanted forest full of sparkle and magic with angelic lullabies, sunshine and cute cartoon bunnies—well, almost; and a brutish demon who rolls with bad folk, swinging furious guitars. Sometimes both speak at once. Chaos ensues. It’s definitely Americana Noir in the southern gothic tradition. A record packed tight n’ loose with forlorn imagery, death and rebirth, hollow ground. As beguiling and captivating as the siren’s call.—Matt James
This is a new kind of surprise from Times New Viking. In place of the blunt force shock of volume, we get little tangential flourishes (“Try Harder”) or new psych-pop fog (“Want to Exist”) or even fuzzy acoustic lullaby (“No Good”). This band has been rightfully praised as sonic innovators and lauded for their direction. This record is a brisk, risky, and rewarding set of pop songs with a flair for accents and a sneering edge. It does everything a pop record should with a power that only this trio can create.—Matthew Fiander
While Legalize It is a roots-reggae record, deeply rooted in Jamaican music and tradition, Peter Tosh put together an eclectic, slippery set of songs, here. They’re all reggae at their core, but they also contain shifts into other genres and tones. Equal Rights ups the ante on the boldness of its predecessor. As a protest record, it’s incendiary and affecting. Its conviction runs deep and the honest emotion under it runs even deeper. These Legacy Editions are carefully assembled and heartfelt representations of Tosh’s two finest albums.—Matthew Fiander
Malian guitar wizard Lobi Traore passed away in 2010, but still had one unreleased album’s worth of material recorded. Bwati Kono is a stellar collection of tracks recorded live in a pair of Bamoko nightclubs, and the recordings find Traore in killer form. He’s ably assisted by backing musicians Lamine Soumano on bass, Moribo Kouyate on balafon (xylophone), and Sekou Diarra and Adama Sissoko on percussion. This is a strong set of gritty, electrified Afro-rock which deserves the attention of anyone currently a fan of better-known figures in the genre, such as Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, Ali Farka Toure, or his son Vieux.—David Maine
Right on the cusp between the end of an old age and the start of a new, the biggest band in the world reinvented itself with a record that perfectly captured the mixture of euphoria, hopefulness, and uncertainty that permeated Europe as the Cold War came to an end. As the Iron Curtain was pried open and nations were either reunified or blasted apart at the heady dawn of the 1990s, Irish superstar band U2 rethought its entire approach for the daring 1991 LP Achtung Baby, an album that saw the group undergoing a drastic stylistic and image overhaul—one it managed to pull it off without a hitch, as five hit singles, several million copies sold, and scores of effusive critical kudos later attest.
In case you don’t own U2’s best (and best-selling) record, the 20th anniversary commemorative program intends to cater to your needs. The second disc—containing fine non-albums tracks like “Salome”, remixes and alternative versions, and a clutch of covers (Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love”, the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black”, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”)—exhibits a lighter and more playful character that provides a fuller picture of the Achtung Baby era because, while certainly a refreshing blast of color and invigoration compared to Rattle and Hum, Achtung Baby was still a predominantly somber affair. However, given the role of levity was properly assumed by the sprawling Zoo TV tour—a garish spectacle of information overload accompanied by numerous on-stage televisions screens, crank calls to world leaders, and Bono playing his ironic characters to the hilt—undertaken to promote the album, a much more sensible and riveting companion would have been a CD or DVD of previously-unreleased live performances from the period.
To truly get your money’s worth, you need to plunk down a hefty amount for the massive 10-disc (six CDs, four DVDs) “Super Deluxe” box set, or the ludicrously hefty “Uber Set”, which trumps the Super Deluxe package by adding vinyl records to the mix and topping it all off with a replica of Bono’s Fly shades. Differences aside, both sets function as the ultimate encapsulation of the Achtung Baby entity, adding to the Deluxe Edition’s contents by throwing in the Zoo TV: Live from Sydney concert DVD, the new documentary From the Sky Down, two discs of remixes, a prototypical “Kindergarten” version of the LP where the mix is more stripped-down and different takes of Bono’s vocals are used, and even the follow-up album Zooropa (1993), which was recorded during the Zoo TV sojourn and is very much cut from the same cloth as its predecessor. It’s an embarrassment of riches—even the B-sides disc is expanded slightly—that will keep listeners happily immersed in the Achtung Baby experience for days.—AJ Ramirez
This CD gives us ten more examples of what makes Gillian Welch & David Rawlings great: high lonesome harmonies, beautifully judged musicianship, exquisite songcraft, and a relationship with tradition that is both serious and playful. The gospel according to Welch and Rawlings is one that embraces darkness alongside light, pain alongside joy, the briar as one with the rose, clear-eyed truth and hazy obfuscation. As a gathering-in of all that’s best about their duality, The Harrow & The Harvest eschews the cosmic Plough and settles instead for the blessings of a more earthly crop.—Richard Elliott
Whitmore plays banjo and acoustic guitar and sings with a deep, gravelly voice as rich Iowa’s black soil. But he’s not singing just about the Hawkeye State. He universalizes the situation by putting its historical and geopolitical contexts the way a Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger might. He sings of those who lost when the West was won as a result of homesteading, and how that was superseded by the injustice of “the Manifest Destiny of factory farms.” He knows that those who come from south of the border seeking work today are no different than he is.—Steve Horowitz
For years the serpentine Tom Waits has been daring us to bite the apple, goading us to see the chaos that ensues. What good has holding back done us? What we’re learning as we camp out in city parks is that, whether the Occupy Wall Street protests create change or not, there’s freedom in embracing those frustrated thoughts in your head and putting them into some action. Waits has given us another brilliant album in Bad As Me, his best in a long while, but he also lays down a gauntlet. Waits travels his own path, though he dons new shoes here, and flies in the face of how things should be. He invites us to join him—these songs are as accessible as they are difficult—but we know that, no matter how much he insists it, we’re not ready to be as bad as Tom Waits. But it’s something to aspire to, occupiers.—Matthew Fiander
In 2011, Wire is here to personally remind us not only that they used to be great, but also that they’re still capable of great things. Over 11 tracks of fantastically unapproachable guitars and vocals, of deceivingly simple rhythms and unswerving purpose, Wire sound perfectly comfortable in their own skin and sense of history on Red Barked Tree.—Crispin Kott