Favourites of 2011: Popular Music

December 28, 2011

At the start of 2011 there were two albums I was particularly anticipating: U2’s long-awaited Songs of Ascent, reportedly consisting of songs inspired by the Psalms, and the sophomore record from Mumford & Sons. As it happened, neither saw the light of day this year. There were some other nice surprises though — and a few mild disappointments.

Gillian Welch: The Harrow and the Harvest

My ‘album of the year’ for 2011 is this gorgeous country-folk record from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. It had been about seven years since their previous record, the lack-lustre Soul Journey, and a full decade since the dazzling Time (The Revelator). The ‘harrow’ of the record’s title is a reference to what was happening in the interim: a general dissatisfaction with the material they were writing, and uncertainty about how to proceed. The waiting paid off: The Harrow and the Harvest is full of wonderful songs, heard at first as beguiling simplicity but slowly unfolding into something multi-faceted and absorbing. It might be the most languid folk album I’ve ever heard; the majority of the songs are in adagio or andante territory. This is just fine. It gives us space to relish the lovely harmonies and Rawlings’ amazing guitar work. Lyrically, too, this record is excellent. On previous outings (especially their debut, Revival) they sunk themselves so deeply into the tradition that it wasn’t clear whether the songs had been written in 1995 or a hundred years earlier, while on the aforementioned Time they tipped too far (in my opinion) toward the modern world, which sometimes made the old-timey music sound contrived. On this record, however, it seems to me that they have managed to strike a good balance between the two poles. The result is a fresh, intriguing, and very lovely set of songs. Highly recommended. [Listen to excerpts]

A few weeks ago Maclin Horton wrote a lengthy appreciation of this record. He also linked to a few good articles about the duo.

Ensemble Phoenix Munich: The Rose of Sharon

Several years ago I chose a record of traditional English folk song, by this ensemble, as one of my records of the year. This year they were back with The Rose of Sharon, a collection of traditional American music from the period between the War of Independence and the Civil War (inclusive). There is a wide variety of material here, ranging from marching songs to spirituals, Shaker hymns, and narrative ballads. Some of the songs I had heard before (such as William Billings’ fuging tunes), but others were new to me, including some real gems (like “The Death of General Wolfe”, a long ballad about the career of the great English General who conquered Quebec at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham). Even a song as hackneyed as Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” is here given a sensitive and fresh interpretation — quite a feat. The musicians on the record are excellent. They play period instruments and have been recorded in what sounds like a natural acoustic (as opposed to close-micing each instrument and mixing them in the studio). The singing is superb: modest, clear, humorous (when appropriate), with precise tuning and minimal vibrato. My only disappointment about the record is that Joel Frederiksen, the ensemble’s director, who is blessed with a rich and warm bass voice, sings on so few of the songs. I’d have liked to hear more of him. [Listen to excerpts]

Tom Waits: Bad As Me

Its name notwithstanding, Waits’ new record is very far from being bad. In fact, it’s pretty terrific, even if it falls short of his very best material. It feels like we’ve heard him doing this sort of thing before: the junkyard stomper, the sliced-jugular balladeer, and the chain-smoking bebopper are all here. A difference is that everything on this record is tight and concise: the songs deliver their punch and take their leave. Not that Waits has been particularly given to sprawl, but after a three-disc set of flotsam and jetsam, and the double-whammy of Alice and Blood Money it was arguably time for something a little more disciplined. On Bad As Me nothing, or almost nothing, outwears its welcome. To my ears the title track is one of the weaker in the batch, and the penultimate track, “Hell Broke Luce”, is too vicious and angry — it doesn’t fit with the rest of the record. But Waits makes amends with the final track, “New Year’s Eve”, which is easily among the best things I’ve heard from him in a long while; his drunken rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” is something of a dream come true. I keep hoping that Waits will someday train his enigmatic muse on the mythic and supernatural realms once again, as he did on the brilliant Bone Machine, but in the meantime Bad As Me is something not to be lightly passed over. [Listen to excerpts]

Undecided

Joe Henry: Reverie

Every time a new Joe Henry record comes out, most of the music reviewers whom I most respect heap their choicest superlatives upon it. Each time, I dutifully buy it, and listen, and listen, and scratch my head, and listen, and shift my weight to the other foot, and furrow my brow, and — well, I just generally don’t get it. There is no doubt that Henry is a consummate artist, a superb musician, a thoughtful lyricist, and all the rest of it. He surrounds himself with top-notch players. He’s one of the best producers around, and his records sound fantastic. It’s difficult to put my finger on exactly what the problem is, but there is unquestionably a problem somewhere, for in the end his records tend to leave me cold. (An exception is 1993’s Kindness of the World, parts of which I really love.) It could be the music itself, which, though drawing on blues, country, and rock, is also tinged with jazz, which almost invariably curdles my blood. But I think the biggest problem is that, even after listening to his songs repeatedly, I cannot figure out what they are about. I just can’t. There is nothing in his writing that draws attention to its impressive impenetrability — he does not write like Dylan in the mid-1960s — but evidently he has mastered the art of writing in an idiom so subtle and elliptical that it evades intelligibility on a more or less permanent basis. All of which is to say that I am still listening to Reverie, still ruminating on it, and still withholding judgement. [Listen to excerpts]

Mild Disappointments

Buddy Miller’s Majestic Silver Strings

On paper, this seems like a great idea: put Buddy Miller together with a group of his guitar-god friends and have them play a set of country music standards. What could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing, exactly. The songs are good; the playing is good. Perhaps I was hoping for something with a little more razzle-dazzle. Duelling banjos maybe. In the end it’s a decent record, but not one that particularly captured my heart. I’d have liked to hear Buddy singing on more of the songs. The final track, a Julie Miller original called “God’s Wing’ed Horse”, is excellent. [Listen to excerpts]

Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues

This one might be better filed in the “Undecided” category above, but I’m putting it here because this is how I feel about it recently. I praised Fleet Foxes’ debut record a couple of years ago for its refreshing blend of the Beach Boys, The Band, and Fairport Convention, and for the impressive maturity of the music. I was really looking forward to this, their sophomore record. I dunno. There is much that is impressive: lovely voices, long-breathed, serpentine melodies, poise, complexity. The sound is rich and layered. But somehow the music fails to involve me. I don’t really know what else to say about it. I wish I liked it more than I do. [Listen to excerpts]

Miranda Lambert: Four the Record

Five years ago Miranda Lambert put out a record called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She came across as a fire-spittin’, shotgun-totin’, sassy hot potato, ready to kick over some trash cans, knock some heads, and waltz off into the sunset. It was great. Then, a few years ago, came Revolution, which was sort of the same, but which leaned toward a commercial country radio sound — beefed up and glossy — and the extra amperage threatened to push her persona over the edge into caricature. Happily, Four the Record backs off of that tendency a little, even if it doesn’t quite all the way back to C Ex-G territory. She is riding the line between alt-country and Top 40 country, and doing a pretty good job of it. There are some weak songs in this batch, and while it is perhaps disingenuous of me to praise her for being bellicose and disorderly and then complain that her songs are unwholesome, I complain nonetheless: some of the material on Four the Record I cannot get through. But there are good songs as well, and when she’s good, she’s pretty dang good. [Listen to excerpts]

Guilty pleasure

Taylor Swift: Speak Now

Having said all of that, let me say this: I owe Ms. Swift a debt of thanks. Her record is so much fun –¬†although it is a little frightening that someone with such unimpeachable teeny-bopper credentials goes around writing melodic hooks like she’s hunting Moby-Dick. (Get one stuck in your mind and you’re done for. You might as well just give up, grab that hair brush, and sing into it for all you’re worth until nightfall.) I don’t say this music isn’t bubble-gum, but may I please have another piece? [Listen to excerpts]

(One thing you’ll notice about Ms. Swift, if you spend any time poking around for live video, is that she often sings flat. The unusual acoustic perspective of this video maybe gives some clue as to why; I’d be out of tune too if I had to listen to all that. It’s nice that in this video, from the Letterman show, she sounds terrific.)

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4 Responses to “Favourites of 2011: Popular Music”

  1. Mac Says:

    Obviously I concur with your opinion of Harrow & Harvest–thanks for the linkage. To my own mild surprise, I haven’t heard anything else on your list, not counting 30-second samples. Oh wait, I did hear Bad As Me once online, when it first came out and was available for streaming for a week or so. I’ll buy it sooner or later, probably sooner. Partly I delayed because I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to buy mp3 or cd. Did you buy the cd? and if so, is there anything in the packaging worth the extra money? On the basis of that one listening, I think I’ll like it. I had more or less the same somewhat negative reaction as you to the title song.

    I’m a massive admirer of Joe Henry, but I can’t argue with your complaint about the obscurity of his lyrics. I wish they weren’t quite so much that way, but am willing to put up with it because so many of the bits and pieces are so good, and the overall effect of the songs works for me. I love Blood From Stars, his previous album, really love it. I think it’s comparable to the best of Tom Waits, which it resembles in some ways. Kindness of the World is actually one of my less-favorite albums, though I like it. It didn’t seem as brilliant to me as its two predecessors, Short Man’s Room and Shuffletown. Do you know the song “King’s Highway” from the former? A chilling Flannery O’Connor short story in song. My stumbling block with JH is often his voice–it sometimes has a tight, punchy quality that can be annoying. For that reason I’m a bit wary of this new one, because it’s so stripped-down (judging by the samples).

    I should hear more Fleet Foxes. I’ve only heard the odd single/video here and there. They’re certainly great singers and tunesmiths.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Mac.

    I downloaded Bad As Me, so I have no idea about the packaging. I find that the words are, for the most part, intelligible (to an ear practiced in Waitsian ways, anyhow). It’s a good, solid record, but not, as I said, a really outstanding one.

    I’ve had a difficult relationship with Joe Henry over the years. I have the song (and the albums) you refer to in my collection, but I don’t know it (or them) well. I’ll go back and listen to that song. I have a friend who is absolutely gaga over the song “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation” (from Scar) — he thinks it one of the most amazingly great songs ever — but it doesn’t do anything for me. Next to Kindness of the World, it is probably Civilians that I like best.

    I once saw Joe Henry in concert; he was dressed to the nines, wearing a suit that made him look like a million bucks — but a million sort-of-uptight bucks. I thought at the time that he needed to loosen up a little, and I realized later that I feel much the same about his music: it is maybe just a little too finely wrought, a little too deliberate. It’s hard to put into words.

    Yes, Fleet Foxes are a talented bunch of guys, and what they are trying to do is intriguing. A lot of critics fell all over this second album. I just couldn’t muster much enthusiasm.

  3. Mac Says:

    I listened to “King’s Highway” this past weekend, for the first time in some years, and really it’s not so much Flannery O’Connor as The Stranger. I think the thing that gives it a Christian slant for me is the title: a sense that this is all happening under the judgment of God, and of the gravity of the choice.

  4. cburrell Says:

    I forgot to report back that I listened to the song too. I hadn’t taken much notice of it before, but you are right: it is a very fine song. I am going to try to listen to the whole record again one of these days.


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