Posts Tagged ‘Taylor Swift’

Favourites of 2012: Popular music

December 19, 2012

Truth be told, I heard relatively little popular music this year. I therefore cannot claim that my selections are anything like a “best of the year”. But these are the records that occupied my attention more than any others.

(Note: Several of the videos in this post are prefaced by short advertisements. I apologize for this. If I could get around them, I would.)

CohenOldIdeasOld Ideas
Leonard Cohen

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tune
(“Going Home”)

I do not know if we shall have another record from Leonard Cohen, who is now nearly 80 years old, but if it should happen that we do not then Old Ideas will stand as a fitting leave-taking. The songs seem to come to us from one perched at the boundary between life and death, looking first at one, then at the other, calmly but not complacently, and trying to say something fitting to the occasion.

Given the way these songs circle ceaselessly around loss and death, it is perhaps surprising to find them also enlivened by sly humour, stately grace, and a steady hope. For Cohen, it seems, the prospect of death provokes serious reflection but not despair, and he approaches us, his audience, not as one sliding into oblivion but as a prophet — albeit a reluctant one (which is the only true kind) — who can speak with confidence because he speaks the truth.

To say that he “speaks” is closer to the truth than you might expect, for some of the songs are indeed close to being simple readings of his poetry rather than songs sung. The music, which is never of very great interest on its own merits, sometimes settles into the merest background accompaniment. That is fine with me. And though I will not claim that Old Ideas is an unqualified success — the first half is notably stronger than the second, and that ought not to be true of a bona fide masterpiece — it is a record that I believe ranks with Leonard Cohen’s best, and that is no small matter. It is my favourite record of the year. [Music Note]

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart.
Come, healing of the reason.
Come, healing of the heart.
(“Come Healing”)

***

mumford-and-sons-album-babelBabel
Mumford & Sons

When Marcus Mumford first came to my attention a few years ago, following the release of his band’s debut record, I was surprised that he was possible. His songs, dressed up in attractive if fairly nondescript roots music, revealed a mind and heart of rare qualities. Here was a young man, still in his early 20s, writing songs about purity of heart, about grace, and about his desire to live in the truth. It was as though he had somehow gone around the moral and spiritual squalor of contemporary life by another route, emerging onto the stage holding a candle in the darkness, ready to sing about hope and a happy ending.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the songs struck a chord with young audiences, and in the several years since that first record became a surprise hit, Mumford & Sons have been on a wild ride, thrust into the limelight, playing to sold out stadiums, and lionized by taste-makers. They have been rubbing elbows with people who matter. Mumford himself went and married an edgy Hollywood actress. My great fear in advance of hearing Babel was that this success, and this new social status, and the scrutiny that goes with them, would have quenched that good and courageous spirit that had attracted me in the beginning.

These worries were not entirely in vain. If I am interpreting the record well, it is fairly clear that the success of Sigh No More was destabilizing in much the way I had feared. “I’m a cad, but I’m not a fraud,” he sings in “Whispers in the Dark”, “I set out to serve the Lord.” So the memory is there, but this new record is notably darker than the last, the songs populated by ghosts and wanderers making their way through trackless wastes, out of balance, lost and labouring under a confusion of tongues. Hope is not absent, but the traveller’s song is no longer a confident “I will hold on hope”, but a plaintive “Give me hope”.

The good news is that Mumford himself seems aware that something precious is under threat, and he is not content. The record’s lead single, “I Will Wait”, shows us a man broken-down and exhausted by “days of dust” who falls in a heap with this prayer on his lips: “Tame my flesh, and fix my eyes”, and who asks for something that only seems contradictory: “a tethered mind freed from the lies”. At several points on the record we encounter a similar wish, for an anchor, a secure foothold in a storm. In “Hopeless Wanderer” the wayward pilgrim is encouraged by these words: “Don’t hold a glass over the flame / Don’t let your heart grow cold / I will call you by name / I will share your road”. And there is reason to hope that this encouragement has been taken to heart, and that all shall yet be well. “Raise my hands,” they sing, “Paint my spirit gold, and bow my head. Keep my heart slow.” Keep my heart slow. It is the prayer of a man who has not lost sight of the most important things.

Musically, Babel ploughs much the same field as did Sigh No More; call it folk-rock, or call it pop music in acoustic garb. I’ll not quarrel. There are, in my judgement, no songs on Babel as immediately memorable as “The Cave” or “Little Lion Man” from their first record, but, taking the record as a whole, the quality of the songwriting has in general improved; fewer peaks, but also fewer valleys.

At the same time, some apparent limitations to their range are becoming apparent. The music has a tendency to bounce between two poles: adagio and piano, on one hand, and allegro and forte, on the other, with not much in between. It becomes predictable, and I’d like to hear something more supple from them on subsequent records. It also feels increasingly clear that the name of the group is all too apt: Marcus Mumford is the man among boys, and without him there would be little reason to pay attention. (Admittedly, I say this without any knowledge of how their songwriting happens; I give my impressions as a listener.) The musicianship, too, is not all that it might be; I cannot play the piano, but I expect that in two or three days I could learn to play the keyboard bits on these songs. Taken together, these considerations point to a lack of depth, and I am not altogether sure that his Sons are going to help Mumford reach his full potential. Nonetheless, for a sophomore record — often a major hurdle for any band that meets with great success their first time out — Babel is promising, and I’ll keep listening.

Here is a live performance of “Ghosts that we Knew”:

***

taylor-swift-red-album-1350575305Red
Taylor Swift

This is getting complicated. Ms. Swift’s previous record was — whatever the musical cognoscenti may say — some kind of middle-brow masterpiece that bounced from strength to tweeny-bopper strength, but which continued her gradual migration away from her country sweetheart roots. Not that she ceased to be a sweetheart, of course, but the music was definitely shedding whatever perfunctory twang and drawl it once had. For some of us this was an unhappy trend, though it was hard to be too anxious when sated on such irresistible confections. Then last year she appeared on the Hunger Games soundtrack alongside The Civil Wars singing “Safe and Sound”, a pleasantly creaky little song co-written with T Bone Burnett (!); in even my fondest imaginings I’d not dared to hope for such a thing, and it raised a question that suddenly seemed a genuine question: what would she do next?

Red answers the question, but not in a simple way. She’s doing this, that, and the other: the record, which clocks in at over an hour (even without the [not-to-be-missed] bonus tracks), sounds like two or three records thrown together. Songs that would have been at home on her previous few records, like the jaunty “Stay Stay Stay” or the smiling-through-the-tears ballad “Begin Again”, are placed cheek-by-jowl with material that stretches hard toward a trendy pop sound (“State of Grace”, “Treacherous”). After Speak Now, for which she wrote all the songs alone, Red is a real “Swift & Friends” affair: there are several flat-footed duets with male partners hopelessly overmatched by her sparkle, a half-dozen co-writers, and a similar number of producers lending a hand.

Which brings us to the nefarious handiwork of two vandals named Martin & Shellback, enlisted by Ms. Swift to produce a handful of songs (“I Knew you Were Trouble”, “22”, and the monster hit “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). These songs are cause for concern, for in them Swift’s country roots are not only entirely effaced but actually defaced by pop-monster studio gee-whizzery, and in them the neighbourhood girl for whom we felt such wholesome affection struts forth bearing a disturbing resemblance to those dime-a-dozen robo-divas one hears too loudly in shoe stores. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is by far the worst example of this; it makes me ill. I will confess a grudging affection for the groove of “We Are Never Ever…”, which retains a sense of fun (and the cheerful one-take music video will, I predict, have a long life as a favourite of dancing-animal-loving children), but I cannot finally approve of any song sung in a valley girl dialect.

Despite those reservations, there is much on the record to admire. The quality of the songwriting, which has improved markedly with each of her new albums, continues to trend upward. Not that she is (or ever will be) Karen Peris, but within the parameters typical of mainstream pop Taylor Swift is a songwriter to reckon with. Her strength has always been in her expansive melodies, and though to my ear that element is less dazzling on Red than it was previously, she has stepped up in other areas. She is, for instance, at the age of 22, taking strides to shed her teenager-oriented reputation; if her principal audience until now has been teenaged girls and their mothers, Red seems directed more at the moms than the girls. Seeing this, I am inclined to relax my complaints about aspects of this record: growing up is hard to do, and who among us wasn’t a wee bit awkward as we made the transition?

dylan-tempestTempest
Bob Dylan

Dylan’s latest is an ambitious and lively record that I really want to love, but somehow cannot. It is his best record since Modern Times and maybe earlier (pre-modern times?), with generally fine songwriting, superb musicianship, and loads of phlegm. He cannot here be said to be resting on laurels; the record is by turns funny, jaunty, haunting, and disturbing — it is certainly not boring. Yet I find that I do not much enjoy it, and for me I think the principal reason is the dominance, in the music, of the blues. The blues are not my thing, especially in long form. (Quite a few of the songs on Tempest are longer than 7 minutes, which is too long to be sustained by a blues riff.) Also, the title song, about the sinking of the Titanic and weighing in at nearly a quarter-hour in duration, is off-putting; the words are disturbing, but Dylan sings them in a casual, even jovial, manner that makes him sound like a tubercular Bad Santa. To my regret I cannot enjoy it.

dement-singSing the Delta
Iris Dement

It had been over fifteen years since Iris Dement’s last record of original material. She hadn’t been entirely quiet during that time — she sang some celebrated duets with John Prine and she issued an enjoyable hymn-sing — but some of us had been wondering if we’d ever hear new songs from her again. The mere existence of this record, therefore, is cause for some celebration. The chief reason to hear it is the same as it has ever been with her: that voice, which is one of the wonders of American music. It is not conventionally pretty, but it is unforgettable; call her the Callas of country.

The songs themselves are a mixed bag, but with a singer of this stature you take the good (“Before the Colors Fade”) with the bad (“The Night I Learned How Not to Pray”) and count your blessings. Sing the Delta certainly doesn’t replace 1993’s My Life as the first Iris Dement record everyone should own and give to their friends, but it is something to be thankful for in any case.

I note from her Wikipedia page that since her last record she was divorced from her first husband and re-married to Greg Brown. Obviously no mere aesthetic consideration could cast a divorce in a happy light, but I will say that I’d give my left kidney to hear those two singing together.

***

Songs That Meant Something To Me This Year: Loudon Wainwright III & Ramblin’ Jack Elliot: “Double Lifetime”; Josh Garrels: “Farther Along”; Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: “The Quiet Life”; Dan Bern: “I Need You”; The Avett Brothers, “Winter in my Heart”.

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.)

Around and about

March 6, 2011

While Antarctica Month was in full swing in February, there were a number of ‘blogging moments’ that I let pass so as not to interrupt the theme. Now that March has arrived, there is opportunity to revisit those topics, albeit briefly. Here is a collection of minor items that caught my attention.

*****

David Bentley Hart, who now seems to be writing for First Things with fair regularity, is a delight to read. Two recent cases in point: a hilarious and high-minded damnation of golf (a nice pendant to his earlier laudatory philosophical essay on baseball), and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, an instructive and thoughtful essay on the significance of Heidigger for modern philosophy. These essays are normally only available to subscribers, but a short-term policy change means that they are currently open to all comers. It would be a shame to miss the opportunity.

*****

A few months ago I noted that a conference at Oxford had been convened on the topic “The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton”. The proceedings of that conference have now appeared in print, with contributions from William Oddie (Chesterton biographer), Aidan Nichols, Ian Ker, John Saward, and others. It looks like a good book to have.

*****

The Grammy Awards were handed out in February, and, much to my surprise (and I think to their surprise too), Arcade Fire won the ‘Album of the Year’ accolades. I’ve taken notice of Arcade Fire a few times over the years, and it was gratifying — even amazing — to see them succeeding on such a big stage. I think their most recent record, The Suburbs, is not as strong as their previous records, but, on the other hand, I would still have picked it over the other ‘Album of the Year’ nominees, which ranged from bland to downright awful.

My biggest question about the Grammy awards this year: ‘Where in the world was Taylor Swift?’ So far I haven’t been given a good explanation.

On the day after the Grammys, can you guess which album topped the sales charts at both Amazon and iTunes? It was Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More, which was my choice, you may recall, for ‘Best Album of 2010′. The band had a short and cramped performance during the Grammy broadcast, and it seems they impressed. Amusingly, they didn’t actually win any awards that night.

*****

The folks at Image Journal have published a list of films they are calling the ‘Arts and Faith Top 100′. This is intended to be a guide to the finest films addressing themselves, in one way or another, to the intersection of art and faith. There are a wide range of films represented; the list is clearly the work of serious cinephiles. Of the 100 films, I have seen only 21, including just two of their top ten. Some of the films I have never heard of before. I was gratified to see several of my favourites on the list, including Magnolia and Ostrov. Unless I am mistaken they have not named a single comedy; that does seem to be an oversight.

*****

Another movie note: a film that I have been anticipating for some time has finally been released in North America. Of Gods and Men, about the lives and deaths of a group of Cistercian monks in Algeria in the 1990s, has been getting strong reviews. It is showing here in town, but sadly I don’t think I’ll have an opportunity to see it. I do want to support films like this, though, so I’ll do what I can: I encourage you to see it in the cinema. Yes, you.

Favourites of 2010: Popular music

December 29, 2010

Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More
My palm this year goes to the debut album from Mumford & Sons, a folk-rock outfit from the UK. I liked it the first time I heard it, and it has continued to grow on me throughout the year. In Marcus Mumford they have a wonderful singer. What really sets the record apart from the competition, however, is the songwriting. It is rare to hear a rock album in which themes of truth, hope, grace, and purity of heart recur, and that fact alone makes Sigh No More rather surprising and special. There is something about the spiritual vitality of this record that reminds me, ever so gently, of a certain Irish band that still hasn’t found what it’s looking for. In the beginning I turned to Sigh No More simply for good music; now I find I go to it for sobriety and refreshment of spirit. No-one is more surprised than I am. [Listen to samples]

Here they are performing “Roll Away Your Stone”. This song starts rather quietly but gathers steam as it goes.

Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series, Volume 9 –
The Witmark Demos: 1962-64

A long time ago, when the world was still young, a collection of Bob Dylan’s early, unpublished songs was issued on a disc called The Bootleg Series, Volume 1. That disc was bread and butter to me. You can imagine my excitement, therefore, when I learned that Volume 9 in the now encyclopedic Bootleg Series was going to revisit those songs again, and the sessions in which they were recorded, issuing two new discs of previously unreleased material. When you love something, the prospect of having “more of the same” is tantalizing indeed.

As it turned out, I found Volume 9 not quite as revelatory as I had hoped: most of the very best material, it seems, had been judiciously chosen for inclusion on Volume 1, so that what remained for Volume 9 has the character of something like musical flotsam and jetsam. Quite a few of the songs here are actually the same as on Volume 1, though in slightly different, and somewhat inferior, versions. In some cases the songs break off in mid-stream, Dylan remarking that he can’t remember the rest. Some of his famous songs are given here in early versions, in a few cases with piano accompaniment: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, ‘Don’t Think Twice’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” among them.

I will say this: if you have not heard the Volume 1 recordings, I do believe that this collection will blow your mind. Even in those early days, Dylan’s songwriting was terrific, and that voice was like a force of nature. In these songs we hear him sending exploratory roots down into the bedrock of American song, and from those roots, as we all know, a mighty oak would grow. Even if I judge that these Volume 9 recordings take second place to Volume 1, this is still an altogether remarkable collection, and one of the best things I heard this year. [Listen to samples]

Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People EP
It seems that the Fifty States Project is dead, and that is a disappointment to me. Sufjan Stevens, after writing two records on Michigan and Illinois, respectively, promised that his life’s work would be to bring each and every state in the union under his musical wing. Such promises must now, I suppose, be attributed to the rashness of youth, for after a five-year hiatus he issued two new records in the closing months of 2010 — the All Delighted People EP in August and The Age of Adz in October — and neither has anything to do with the Fifty States.

Of the two new albums, The Age of Adz is undoubtedly the more ambitious and sweeping. Unfortunately — and I say this with real regret — it is a horrid, beastly thing. He has taken the songs, which for all I know were perfectly good songs, and thrown every kind of cacophonic device into the mix: computer bleeps, static blips, electrical feedback, old-school synthesizers, and, worst of all, drum machines programmed to peck out the herkiest, jerkiest rhythms you ever tried to lay ears on. The result is distressing, and I struggled to listen through to the end.

All Delighted People is another matter, thank goodness. As usual with Stevens the arrangements are elaborate and detailed, but at least here it sounds like music: there are recognizable instruments, and rhythms to which one can tap. There is a celebratory, and even ecstatic, feeling to the record, and he is painting on a larger canvas than before, not only because the songs are long, but conceptually, too, they are moving in a larger space than we have heard from him before. It is hugely ambitious, and he unbuttons a little, which is nice to hear. The guitar freak-out that opens the 17-minute closing song is something we would not have found (and did not find) on his last few records. All in all, it’s a fascinating record that shows that this talented musician still hasn’t reached the end of his tether. The Age of Adz obviously raises the troubling question of what we might expect from him in the future, but I’ll not look a gift-horse in the mouth: All Delighted People is delightful. [Listen to samples]

Taylor Swift: Speak Now
Say what you want about Ms. Swift and the legions of adolescent girls who propelled her, once again, to the top of the chart. The simple truth is that her songs have more hooks than a box of fishing tackle. From the first listen I found Speak Now pretty irresistible.

There is something very likable about Taylor Swift: a girlish charm, an impish sense of humour, a good-natured lack of self-regard, and, without wishing to be overly moralistic, there is something wholesome about her too; she believes in true love, and hers are romances in which marriage and children are the natural telos. It is enough to annoy the heck out of the grey lady feminists, which is great, and it is also something that young girls ought to hear. If it takes an earful of sugar to help that medicine go down, well, I have no objections. It is true that she loses her temper once or twice on this new record (“There is nothing I do better than revenge”), but this is balanced off by moments of moral counsel (“Why ya gotta be so mean?”).

I’m having fun. Well, it’s a fun record. For the first time she wrote all the songs herself, which is itself a noteworthy achievement since every Nashville mother’s son is clamouring to get a song onto one of her records. And, to give Ms. Swift her due, the songwriting on Speak Now is considerably stronger and more consistent than on her previous records. A song like ‘Long Live’, a lively reflection on fame and friendship, would have overreached her ability before; not this time. [Listen to samples]

Honourable mention: Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone [Listen to samples]; Innocence Mission, My Room in the Trees [Listen to samples]

Around and about: video edition

November 10, 2010

Time has been short of late, but here are some interesting things I’ve come across:

  • Another volume in Dylan’s Bootleg Series was released late in October.  This one, Volume 9: The Witmark Demos, is a 2-disc set of early recordings. Some of the 47 songs are familiar from Dylan’s early records, though they are given here in different versions, and a fair number were previously heard, also in slightly different versions, on the Bootleg Series, Volume 1. Even so, this is a wonderful collection. Dylan was in his early 20s when he wrote the songs, and we can hear him trying his hand at the various genres of American roots music. Not all of the songs are of the highest quality, but many are very good, and that voice.
  • Speaking of Dylan, the bad boys at Korrektiv have dug up a project from a few years back called Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, in which gospel music luminaries tackled Dylan’s overtly Christian songs.  It sounds terrific. 
  • Speaking of gospel, I have been listening a lot lately to Mavis Staples’ recent record You Are Not Alone, and I am loving it. Here is the title track in a spare arrangement.  Jeff Tweedy is on guitar, but it’s the voice and the song that are the real attractions: 
  • Speaking of attractions, the teenaged girls of the world and I were anticipating Taylor Swift’s latest record, which dropped a week or two ago, and has since sold gazillions of copies. There’s nothing on it quite as beguiling as “Love Story”, but it’s a good record that, on balance, I think I like better than its predecessors. The critics, too, have generally seen fit to praise rather than pan.
  • Speaking of pan, I came across an interesting panel discussion on the theme “The Imagination of C.S. Lewis”. The participants are Douglas Wilson (who recently co-published a book with Christopher Hitchens), N.D. Wilson (who is currently writing a screenplay for The Great Divorce), and Alan Jacobs (author of The Narnian). It’s a wide-ranging conversation, touching on Narnia, the Space Trilogy, Planet Narnia, the film adaptations, Tolkien, and other topics, from people who know what they’re talking about. I found it worth my time. [Unembeddable, but viewable here.]
  • Speaking of Narnian film adaptations, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will be released in just a few weeks. This will be the first film in the series not directed by Andrew Adamson, so there are perhaps some grounds for hope that it will capture the Narnian magic better than its predecessors did. We’ll see.
  • Speaking of magic, David Bentley Hart, who surprised me some months ago by recommending a book called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, follows up with a short philosophical essay inspired by garden fairies.
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