Saturday, December 31, 2005

Other Musical Stuff From 2005


10) Bill Withers - Just As I Am (Columbia/Legacy)
All I knew about Bill Withers before this reissue crossed my desk was that he sang “Lean on Me” long before that one hit wonder Club Nouveau took it to number-one when I was in high school, and that he sang that theme to Kate and Allie. (Hey, when I was growing we only got a couple of channels in clearly, so I was forced to watch a lot of CBS crap. You think I actually liked the Dukes of Hazzard? Umm, okay, bad example.) Oh, and I also knew that “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the second track on Just As I Am, was probably one of the best breakup songs ever. So hearing the other 11 songs on this fine album came as something as a revelation. Withers wrote a series of great portraits of growing up in the South and what life was like in Harlem in the ’70s. And his rich voice is more than ably supported by producer/keyboardist Booker T. Jones (as in, and the MG’s) and guitarist Stephen Stills. Just As I Am was reissued as one of them newfangled DualDiscs, with one side a regular CD and the other a DVD. The DVD side includes a great documentary about the creation of the album, with Withers cutting down the interviewer Elvis Mitchell on just about every point the former New York Times film critic brings up. Those tense moments convinced me this new format is definitely worthwhile.

9) Rick Springfield - Written in Rock: Rick Springfield Anthology (RCA/Legacy)
Okay, hands up if you think this is the stupidest choice you’ve seen on this the list this year? One, two, three…106, 107…okay, I get it. Hands up those that don’t find it so crazy…………alright McEwan, you can put your hand down. Yes my peeps, I have spent time listening to two discs of Rick Springfield songs—and more than just once! What made me spin these discs (well, I’ll admit, the first disc got a lot more play than the second one, which features such non-winners as “Bop ’Til You Drop” and “Celebrate Youth”) wasn’t just those ubiquitous hits like “Jessie’s Girl,” “I’ve Done Everything For You” and “Don’t Talk to Strangers.” The deep album tracks on this collection, especially the pre-Working Class Dog material, are some pretty solid guitar-based pop songs. Springfield also wrote some of the most honest liner notes I’ve ever seen, especially when it comes to describing his film Hard to Hold: “I’m sorry, but that movie sucked. I know a lot of people liked it but in retrospect, maybe playing a musician wasn’t the best way to show off my acting chops.” I gotta give props to a man that will slam his own film in print. Okay, I gotta get back to singing along to “Affair of the Heart.”

8) Paul Westerberg - The Best of Besterberg (Rhino)
I almost chose to leave this album off of this list for this set’s one glaring omission: “Waiting for Somebody” isn’t on here! I mean, what gives? Is director Cameron Crowe trying to make sure that anyone who ends up discovering Westerberg’s post-Replacements catalog has to buy the Singles soundtrack (where “Somebody” first appeared in 1992)? It’s still the best song Minneapolis native has written in the past decade plus, and it still never fails to make me happy for those three minutes and 32 seconds. The kicker to this is reading the very end of Westerberg’s own track notes where he writes “Missing Songs”…and lists five songs that aren’t “Somebody!” He follows that up by writing, “I had the opportunity of input on which songs to include, but declined—seeing as I’ve been known to be wrong in the past.” Argh. Just another way this great man has aggravated me and many fans over the years. (I’d count 1/3 of the way-too-drunken show I saw this past May as a big chunk of that aggravation.) You might ask, “So with all that complaining, why did it make the list?” Well, any disc that has “Dyslexic Heart,” “Runaway Wind,” “Love Untold,” “Let the Bad Times Roll” and the best B-sides ever, “Seeing Her” and “Man Without Ties,” must be chock-full o’ goodness. Or in this case, bestness.

7) Fountains of Wayne - Out-Of-State Plates (Virgin)
For a group that’s released only three albums in their 10 year existence, it’s amazing that Fountains of Wayne had enough B-sides to fill up two discs. What’s even more surprising is the high quality of these supposed “throwaway tracks.” Each disc flows like the songs were all meant to go together, even though they were recorded at different points in the band’s career. Tracks like “I Know You Well” and “Kid Gloves” should have made the cut for one of their real albums, and why Adam Schlesinger, Chris Collingwood and company decided to not hold back the two new songs on the collection—“Maureen” and “The Girl I Can’t Forget”—boggles the mind. “Maureen,” the tale of being the male best friend of a girl who shares a little bit too much information, is just too damn funny to be placed on a stop-gap release. The lines “I know you think I'm just a friend/But can we please just put an end/To all the graphic imagery that you insist on feeding me” slay me—and at times is just a little too close for comfort. Add in witty liner notes, some choice covers (finally their version of “…Baby One More Time” that’s not of bootleg quality) and two great Christmas tunes, and you’ve got one of the best B-side compilations of recent memory.

6) Bob Dylan - No Direction Home: The Soundtrack - The Bootleg Series Volume 7 (Legacy/Columbia)
So when is a soundtrack not a soundtrack? When it’s a Bob Dylan project, nothing is bound to make sense. (I might just be saying that because I saw Masked and Anonymous on cable recently, and I was still confused.) Most the 28 tracks on this collection are not featured in the acclaimed Martin Scorsese film, or least the versions in the film are usually the standard album versions. The producers of the soundtrack wisely figured out that people didn’t need another Dylan best of (even though yet another compilation was released on November 15th), so they drew on rare live recordings and early takes of well known classics to make it yet another fine release in the Bootleg Series. This edition echoes the spirit of The BeatlesAnthology series by revealing Dylan’s creative process during his mid-’60s peak. The alternate early takes of “Tombstone Blues,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” show that Dylan wasn’t afraid to radically rearrange his material when searching for that perfect combination of wordplay and a messy cacophony of rock. Even though the live version of “Like a Rolling Stone” was previously released on the Bootleg Series Volume 4: Live 1966, hearing that fan yell “Judas” and Dylan’s venomous response (and commanding the band to “play fucking loud”) is worth listening to over and over again.

5) T. Rex - The T. Rex Wax Co. Singles: A’s and B’s 1972-1977 (Rhino)
I’ll admit that at the beginning of this year my knowledge of T. Rex was limited to the hits on Electric Warrior (“Get It On” and “Jeepster”) and the few songs played in that film from a few years back, Billy Elliott. Wow, I was missing out on some good music. These two discs collect almost all the essential tracks Marc Bolan and company recorded after Electric Warrior until his death in 1977. Yes, that song from that car commercial is here (“20th Century Boy”), as are some of the best songs produced in the glam rock heyday (“Telegram Sam,” “Metal Guru” and “Children of the Revolution”). What fascinates me most about this collection are the tracks that were the B-sides. The fact that songs as strong as “Cadilac,” “Satisfaction Pony” and “Solid Baby” never made it to albums seems, well, kind of crazy to me. I suppose it was a different time back then, where artists actually recorded good songs for B-sides (as opposed to offering up a live track or a remix like most acts today). The T. Rex Wax Co. Singles is great place to start for anyone looking to discover one of the most underrated (at least in the U.S) artists the ’70s produced.

4) Elvis Costello - King of America (Rhino)
I’ve been a big fan of all of Rhino’s reissues of the Costello catalog, yet this is the one I’ve always been waiting for. This is the only Costello disc to feature two of my Top 10 all-time Elvis songs (“Brilliant Mistake” and “I’ll Wear It Proudly”) and has always been my favorite album of his since I picked it up in the summer of 1989. This is my third different CD version of the album, which makes me hope that this is it for the reissues. (Yes, I’m talking to you Mr. MacManus.) The original Rykodisc reissue had a bonus disc of live material and some other extra tracks, but the Rhino edition blows it out of the water with a second disc of 21 bonus tracks. The highlights by far are the eight solo demos Costello recorded before bringing in the multiple casts of musicians featured on the final product (billed to The Costello Show). The raw angst in Costello’s voice in “I’ll Wear It Proudly” and “I Hope You’re Happy Now” (which ended up on his next album, Blood and Chocolate) leave no doubt that this was a man going through a bitter breakup, and we as listeners were all the better for it. The title of the leadoff track “Brilliant Mistake” has never been so appropriate.

3) Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run 30th Anniversary Edition (Columbia)
Here’s a tiny piece of advice: if any artist is going to do a reissue of one of their classic albums, and not include any unreleased songs or alternate takes, this is the way they should do it. Having a properly mastered for CD version of one of my Top 10 albums of all time is nice (it certainly sounds a whole more powerful and less hissy now), but the two DVDs that came in this box set are nothing short of extraordinary if you’re a Springsteen fan. Hammersmith Odeon, London 1975 is a two hour-plus tour de force of Springsteen and the classic E Street Band lineup at their ferocious best. How footage this good was left to languish in Springsteen’s vault is beyond me. This concert took place three months after Born to Run was released, so the six songs from that disc they play still have a freshness and a little bit a wild edge to them. I’m pretty sure that “Born to Run” and “She’s the One” were never played this fast again. The best part is finally having high quality renditions of the “Detroit Medley” and “Quarter to Three” and the beautiful solo version of “For You.” The other DVD in the set, Wings for Wheels, is a decent look at Springsteen in the studio at that time and is pretty entertaining to watch, especially when Springsteen listens to the playback of alternate takes of “Jungleland.” I swear he must have bite into a lemon before one of them plays. However, the best part of this DVD is the bonus footage of three songs from 1973. Springsteen and this smaller version (only one keyboardist, no second guitarist) of the E Street Band seem tentative on the first two songs, “Spirit in the Night” and “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” and then shift into 5th gear when they break into “Thundercrack.” This version of the long lost gem—which was only released on the 1998 box set Tracks—is worth the money I paid for this box. With all that being said, I have one question: Why couldn’t we get to hear full versions of those alternate takes that made Bruce look as though he chewed on citrus fruit?

2) Wilco - Kicking Television: Live in Chicago (Nonesuch)
This release makes me think I might have the ability to project my will upon people—or at least upon Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Back in June of 2004 when I saw the new six-piece lineup of Wilco (which I wrote about in the 15th annual Reynolds Top 20 List) for the first time at their Irving Plaza show, I was struck by how expansive the sound was and how much better Tweedy sounded doing these A Ghost Is Born songs than he did on the album itself. Halfway through the set I started thinking, “Someone’s gotta properly record this lineup—bootleg recordings aren’t going to be good enough.” I think that I mentioned the same thing to Tweedy when I interviewed him for the day job a couple weeks later, and I thought about it again in the fall of 2004 when I saw them at Radio City Music Hall. Somehow my thoughts got through, and the band booked a four night stand in their hometown of Chicago in May of this year to record. Listening through these 23 tracks over and over again lead me to the conclusion that they had four rather hot shows in the Windy City. From the 38 times Tweedy screams “nothing” in “Misunderstood” to the final soulful lament for peace in “Comment,” Kicking Television captures a great band at the height of their powers. I can’t wait to hear what this latest lineup does in the studio.

1) The Figgs - Continue to Enjoy The Figgs Volume One (Stomper Music)
After years of pleading from fans (and this author) The Figgs finally recorded a live album this year. And the best part? Look at the title above—it ends with Volume One, which means a Volume Two is on the way next year. Recorded over Labor Day weekend at guitarist Mike Gent’s Providence, Rhode Island home in front of friends and family, Continue to Enjoy the Figgs captures everything that makes a Figgs live show one of the only things that keeps me going on this planet. There’s a couple of previously unreleased songs (“Place Is Packed,” “Painted Panel Basement”), aggressive jamming within their tightly focused pop tunes (“Static,” “Inside the Disco”), shout outs to fellow bandmates as they’re about to blow the doors off some dump (Gent yells out “Come on Pete” just as the band is about to kick “Something’s Wrong” into hyperdrive) and little vocal improvs that can be damn funny (Gent stretching out the “eeeeee” at the end of “Simon Simone” is priceless). Continue to Enjoy The Figgs is essential for any Figgs fan, and is a great place to start for the uninitiated. And now pardon me, as I have to go listen to it for the fifth time today.


10) Weezer - Roseland Ballroom, New York, NY 5/12
Relief. That was the one feeling I had when this show ended. I had listened to the new Weezer album, Make Believe, twice before this show and all I could think was, “Please, please, please, don’t do the entire new album.” Make Believe is easily the worst record in this band’s career, with only two bearable songs. Thankfully they only did five songs from Make Believe, and redeemed those poor selections by doing a few songs from Pinkerton. Those tracks got me pogoing, and then gave me the Achilles heel problem I’ve battled for most of the year. So thanks for that leg pain Weezer, it was worth it.

9) Juliana Hatfield - Maxwells, Hoboken, NJ 8/11
I think I wrote something like this last year about either her last album or her band show in New York, but I feel the need to repeat myself—Juliana Hatfield is a great guitar player. Now I don’t mean in the Eddie Van Halen/Yngwie Malmsteen vein. I’m talking about playing that isn’t technical perfect, but is perfect for the mood of certain songs. During this show Hatfield laid down solo after solo that zigged and zagged all over the place, at points almost falling apart before finally making its way back to solid ground. And with great support from the monster rhythm section of Ed Valauskas and Pete Caldes, how could she go wrong?

8) The Figgs - Southpaw, Brooklyn, NY 3/12
The first time The Figgs played at this venue in early 2003, it was packed, most people were drunk and raucous and screamed after every song and the band played great. The second time…eeeh, it wasn’t so hot. The crowd was snoozing, which robbed the guys of any energy. This show more than made up for that Xmas gig of 2003. And the fact I got five people who had never seen them before to go to the gig was an added bonus.

7) White Stripes/The Shins/Brendan Benson - Keyspan Park, Brooklyn, NY 9/24
By the time this early fall triple bill rolled around, I had already seen The Shins headline a sold out Webster Hall and Brendan Benson play for a few thousand at the annual Siren Festival at Coney Island. So the only unknown quantity in spending my hard earned entertainment dollars were Jack and Meg White, who I had never seen before. In retrospect, I can’t believe I ever doubted that they would be good. Jack White’s guitar was so loud and covered so much territory that I can’t ever imagine them needing a bass player or another guitarist live. And you know what? Meg White ain’t so bad herself. (And she’s kind of cute too, sexist pig that I am.) It was also apparent that playing on a bill with the Stripes inspired both opening acts to up their games. Brendan Benson played all of his most rocking songs and commented how much he enjoyed playing on the same bill as his friend (and sometime bandmate) Jack White. And The Shins could barely contain their glee at being on the same stage as the Stripes. It’s not like this group acts morose on stage, but keyboardist-bassist-guitarist Marty Crandall and bassist-guitarist Dave Hernandez jumped around just a little bit higher at this show. A great bill of indie rock at the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones—who could ask for anything more?

6) Rilo Kiley - Webster Hall, New York, NY 5/26
Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis is a goddess. She’s also one of the best front persons I have seen in recent years. She snarled, cooed and belted in all the right places during this set. I was excited about this show after it ended that I jumped up and down and my IPod flew out and landed at someone’s feet. So thank you Josh, and the mysterious woman, for realizing what had happened and retrieving it for me. And thank you Jenny Lewis, for just being you.

5) Bob Mould - Irving Plaza, New York, NY 10/5
The top 3 things about this concert:
1) Bob Mould played Hüsker Dü songs with a full band.
2) Bob Mould played Sugar songs with a full band.
3) Bob Mould played some solo stuff with a full band.
Do I need to write anymore about how great this night was? Or how meaningful it was to hear “Could You Be the One?” and “Makes No Sense at All” at ear-splitting rock band volume? If you’re a longtime reader, probably not. After Mould’s “retirement” of playing live shows with a live band in 1998, and his refusal to play either Hüsker or Sugar songs with any other bands, I never thought I’d get to see this happen. Yet I did. Amazing. This show was part of one of the greatest concert weeks of my whole life, which you’ll be able to read more about below.

4) Gravel Pit/Nada Surf - Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY 10/6
It had been four long years since The Gravel Pit had played in New York, and honestly, I never thought I would see them play again. I was okay with that—seeing the singer and recent New York transplant Jed Parish play solo shows and getting the occasional Gentlemen (the other 3/4 of the band) show down here was good enough for me. So when I found out they had signed on to open for their old touring pals Nada Surf (and were doing other shows in their hometowns of Boston and New Haven), I immediately bought a ticket and took the next day off work so I could thoroughly enjoy the night. I did worry that I might have psyched myself up too much for this show and I would end up disappointed. Thankfully, those fears were unfounded. For a group that had one rehearsal and two gigs under their belts, they sounded quite incredible. Parish’s voice blended effortlessly with muscular riffs that guitarist Lucky Jackson spun out song after song, while rhythm section of Ed Valauskas and Pete Caldes proved yet again that they are two of the best in the business. And the biggest surprise of the night? Nada Surf were damn good too. I hadn’t seen them since the “Popular” days, and they certainly have moved miles beyond that.

3) Soul Asylum - Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY 10/26
In this year where a good deal has been written about New Orleans, I left this show thinking that it was as close to a New Orleans style funeral as I would ever get. Perhaps that’s because singer-guitarist Dave Pirner moved there a few years ago, I’m not sure. The spirit of late bassist Karl Mueller weighed over this entire evening, yet not in a sad way. When Pirner said that this and every show the band played from now on would be dedicated to Mueller, people whooped and hollered and shouted out his name in joy. (And then in the case of me and my friend Mike, we got more beer.) Apparently Mueller himself picked his own replacement (pardon the pun) before his death, as ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson filled in more than capably. He, along with new drummer Michael Bland (who’s played with Paul Westerberg and Prince), propelled the band, giving Pirner and guitarist Dan Murphy more energy than I had seen in them since the pre-Grave Dancer’s Union days. The new material held up well amongst all the band’s hits, which makes me optimistic for the new album due out next spring. And as much as I don’t need to ever hear “Runaway Train” again, Pirner’s small gesture during it made it totally worthwhile. Just before Stinson stepped up to play the little solo bass lick just after the first chorus, Pirner looked up at the ceiling and pointed. It was a tiny moment, but it spoke volumes about his love for his fellow bandmate. Welcome back guys—I think Karl would be proud.

2) Electric Six - Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY 9/30
I’d probably write more about this show—which was amazing, don’t get me wrong—but I do have a hard time recalling the exact details of what songs they played. I do know they opened with “Dance Epidemic,” the Queen cover “Radio Ga Ga” had a lot of people clapping their hands in the air and that frontman Dick Valentine still has the best dancing moves this side of Usher. And of course, I do recall that I jumped up and down enough to reinjure my heel for like the fourth time this year. My friends Erik and Kat and I did drink a lot of beer before the show. However, all that beer was no match for the random shot that was given to me at one point by some folks who worked at Bowery and were there on their night off enjoying the gig. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around with some girl saying, “Here, join us for a shot!” I asked her why, and she replied, “You look like you’re having so much fun that you deserve it.” So I stupidly slugged back the shot, not knowing it was the LSD of booze—tequila. I immediately followed that up with a beer (bought by the same folks that gave me the shot) in hopes of keeping my brain in once place. Alas, that was not to be, and that’s a story for another time.

1) The Figgs/Graham Parker & The Figgs - Knitting Factory, New York, NY 6/11
I’ve obviously seen many Figgs shows in my decade plus of being a fan and my more than five years of unofficially working for the guys. And I know that they can be their own harshest critics. So imagine how puzzled the look on my face was when all three of them agreed with me on one point after this gig—it was the best they had ever played with Graham Parker. And I’m not just talking about their set backing him; their opening set (with guest guitarist Brett Rosenberg) was just about as perfect a 45 minutes as you’ll ever see in music. That pace didn’t let up when they came back out with GP. Every note was in the right place, all the harmonies soared, the solos were immaculate and their enthusiasm on stage was met with an ecstatic response from a packed venue. If they tour together again, it’s going to be hard to top this night.



Here’s a good sign of how swept up I became in Spoon’s music this year. In the space of four weeks, I went from only owning one song, “The Way We Get By” from the first The O.C. Mix, to having their entire catalog and some live bootleg tracks on my iTunes. Last year my friend Bill told me he was positive I would like their music, and I admit I didn’t really take him seriously. (Sorry about that Bill.) Then when I mentioned to him I had heard this great new song by them called “I Turn My Camera On,” he sent me a couple of MP3s, which got stuck in my head for a few days. Britt Daniel’s voice and the forceful, yet sparse drums were a combination I was powerless to resist. So I spent days looking on the ’net for other songs I could sample, and every track I found was better than the next. I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up their 2001 album Girls Can Tell and discovered that I already knew one song, “Everything Hits at Once,” from somewhere—WFUV perhaps? I’m still not sure. Of course, now that I own everything, I want them to make another album very soon so I can continue my Spoon fix.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention these discovery runner-ups: Brendan Benson, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, Josh Rouse and The Shins were all key parts of my musical resurgence this year.


Little Feat

Long ago in the dark ages (a time historians now call the mid-to-late ’80s) I loved what kids today call “jam bands.” The Dead (who’ve I’ve mentioned in the past), The Allman Brothers Band and Little Feat were all in high rotation when I had wild hair and way too big of a moustache. Little Feat’s catalog was just being released on CD when I entered college, and I think five or six of my first 100 discs ended up being those reissues. Something about the slinky grooves and at-times bizarre lyrics from frontman Lowell George connected with me—perhaps it was because George had been in a band with Frank Zappa for a couple of years, who knows? And when the rest of the band reformed without the late George in 1987 and hit the road, I tried to see them as many times as possible, and gladly bought their first two reunion albums, Let it Roll and Representing the Mambo. Then after I graduated my tastes drifted away from Little Feat and the like, and I eventually sold off many of the band’s albums during various moves. Last year the amazing live album Waiting for Columbus was reissued, and listening to it made me remember why I liked them in the first place. Then one day at work I heard “Rock and Roll Doctor,” and immediately wanted to hear it again. So this year I have re-added three Little Feat albums to my collection, with all of them making it to the iPod. Now if I start talking about buying those Allman Brothers albums of the late ’70s, someone, please, stop me at all costs.

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