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Listening Listfully 2009

Just in time for the year to end, here is my list of the 20 AEUs [Album Equivalency Units] released during 2009 that held and rewarded my attention, provided recurring pleasure, and otherwise achieved a State of Favor in my ears, heart and head.  As usual, the selection is purely personal: most of the releases that earned wide ranging huzzahs among the bloggy-music crowd -- your Animal Collectives, your Dirty Projectors, your Grizzly Bear (the involvement of Nico Muhly notwithstanding) -- did nothing for me this year.  

Habit's creature I seem to be.  Three of my top four selections are by artists who placed similarly high in my estimation in prior years. In 2006, Sweet Billy Pilgrim and Elvis Perkins ranked first and second, as they do again in 2009, and Doveman took the prime spot in 2007.  Had I actually posted a list in 2008, Doveman banjo-picker Sam Amidon would have headed the procession, with the complicated simplicity (and Nico Muhly-arranged chamber ensemble) of All Is Well.  (Based upon the one track that is circulating about at the moment, I can predict with confidence that I will be talking about Sam's I See the Sign somewhere on next year's list.)  The principal reason for the repeaters repeating is the simplest and best reason I know: each produced a new recording this year that was as good as or better than the ones I liked so well before.  So there.

And so, to the list.  Beyond the first half dozen or so, the ranking becomes increasingly loose, but I am an enthusiastic endorser of each of these collections.

1. Sweet Billy PilgrimTwice Born Men  

The placement of Twice Born Men at Number One can come as no surprise, given my previous effusions in its support.  The best use ever of a garden shed.  

Here are two video versions of the concluding song, "There Will It End."  In the first, from the album, the "choir" is made up of some 30+ versions of writer-singer Tim Elsenburg accompanying himself.  The second is just three fellows and their handpumped harmonium in the back seat of a cab in the country.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim from Black Cab Sessions on Vimeo.


 2. Elvis Perkins in Dearland - Elvis Perkins in Dearland

I so admire Elvis Perkins' debut Ash Wednesday that I included it on both my 2006 and 2007 lists, but so much of that record is So Darned Sad that even I will let long stretches go by without feeling compelled to listen to it. Elvis Perkins in Dearland -- it's the name of the band and the name of the album -- is a far more approachable creature, though still amply infused with mortality.  It has been compared elsewhere to the "second line" in a New Orleans jazz funeral, the raucous strut that ensues upon leaving, but not forgetting, the graveyard.  It has its own attendant spirits: one senses the shade of Roy Orbison or Buddy Holly was smiling quietly in the next room as it was recorded.

  • Elvis Perkins in Dearland - Shampoo [MP3]


 3. Antony and the JohnsonsThe Crying Light

There is no middle ground when it comes to Antony Hegarty.  Some are put off by his richly florid singing style, some by his unapologetic fluidity of gender, and the list goes on.  Those who like his music like it immensely, and I am one of those.  The Crying Light is more a series of art songs than a conventional "pop" record, an impression enhanced by the orchestral arrangements contributed by, yes, Nico Muhly.  You can't really dance to it, but it certainly holds your attention.

Below, not from the album itself but from a more recent single release, Antony has his way with Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love."  This is as good a way as any to learn whether Antony and the Johnsons are your cup of tea.


4. DovemanThe Conformist  

I suppose the singing of Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman, is another acquired taste, since he seems always to be straining away at the whispery top of his range.  Otherwise, the songs on The Conformist are as approachable as Antony's are difficult.  The avant-garde excursions of With My Left Hand I Raise the Dead (#1 on that 2007 list) have been foregone in favor of straightforward, dreamy and slightly sad songs, mostly about love.  Nico Muhly is again involved, alongside the likes of Norah Jones, the Swell Season, and most of the members of The National.  Deeply comfortable, lived-in music, perfect for staring into the middle distance at the rain outside the window, scotch in hand.


 5. Elvis CostelloSecret, Profane and Sugarcane  

The Other Elvis on this list.  Costello goes wandering in the company of T-Bone Burnett in the fields of Americana and returns with his strongest record of recent years.  Guilt and revenge meet southern Gothic 'round the back from P.T. Barnum's Museum.  Hotcha!  I don't think it's true, though, what he says about the girls in Ypsilanti.


Mark eitzel klamath
6. Mark EitzelKlamath

Mark Eitzel is best known as frontman of American Music Club, but I have never been a particular follower of that band.  My enthusiasm for Eitzel derives from his 1996 solo collection, 60 Watt Silver Lining, which begins with a classic miserable (I mean unhappy, not talentless) reading of Carol King's "No Easy Way Down" and includes one of my favorite song titles ever: "Some Bartenders Have the Gift of Pardon."  Klamath was recorded somewhere in the forests of northern California or southern Oregon, near the titular river, and offers more of the beauty, booze and regret that are Eitzel's trademark.  It apparently received an actual release in Europe, but is available in this country only by way of direct order from the artist. There are many worse ways to spend twelve bucks.


7. Grand Valley State University New Music EnsembleIn C Remixed  


It's Terry Riley's In C, performed by the estimable GVSUNME of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and then turned over to an array of third parties to be broken down, squashed, squished, scrambled, repurposed, deconstructed, marinated, basted and broiled into some other transformogrified sort of a thing.  The "straight" performance is one of the shortest and most concentrated I've encountered, coming in at a brisk 20 minutes when 35 to 40 is more typical.  The remixes are all over the map, demonstrating both the breadth and variety of the entire concept of "remixing" and the remarkable resilience of Riley's little piece.  Minimalism you can (sometimes) dance to.


8. John VandersliceRomanian Names  

This might have made a higher position on my list, but for being the followup to what I think are two of the best albums of the past ten years, Vanderslice's Pixel Revolt and Emerald City, and is just a shade less strong than either of them.  Where those records are a sort of zeitgeist-in-a-bottle distillation of life in these United States post-9/11 and mid-Iraq War, Romanian Names is "just" a very fine album of story/character songs. It is still more compelling than 90+ percent of what's out there.  This is the best-produced record of Vanderslice's career (Scott Solter again joins him at the board) and the sound and arrangements could not be better. The close-mic'd strings on the closer, 'Hard Times,' just slay me.


Atlantic ocean
9. Richard SwiftThe Atlantic Ocean  

Richard Swift is the new Harry Nilsson, though he has not achieved anything like Nilsson's (short lived) success.  Popcraft of a high order, spiced with humor and a cockeyed skepticism of all things.

None of the "Richard Swifts" in this video is actually Richard Swift.  Nor, I believe, are any of them male.  "Lady Luck" is a soulful lady indeed.


10. A.C. NewmanGet Guilty  

Another case of preferring the group leader to the group: The New Pornographers are fine, but Carl Newman's two solo albums, of which this is the second, are finer.  Brighty, shiny, poppy, with poison in it.


11. Ida MariaFortress Round My Heart  

A blast, in every sense.  Redolent of that exciting moment ca. 1978 when Punk collided with New Wave and the result was sharp, sharp, sharp. Even the two slow songs sizzle.  Ferocious.

Ida Maria - I Like You So Much Better When You`re Naked


Part symphony 4
 12. LA Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen – Arvo Pärt, Symphony No. 4 "Los Angeles"  

Esa-Pekka Salonen's final year as music director and chief conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic included many notable concerts, of which this is one: the world premiere of Arvo Pärt's Symphony No. 4, his first return to the symphonic form since 1971.  The performance is only available currently as a download from Deutsche Gramophon by way of iTunes; I do not know if it will ever see physical release.

The Symphony is pure late period Pärt, the large string orchestra planting chord after chord as if each is the only one that will ever matter, with occasional interjections from the percussion section.  Heavy, but not lumbering, and deeply serious in going about its business.  A beautiful piece of work.

I have no sample to offer, so instead here is Björk, almost inarticulate with rapture, interviewing Pärt for the BBC in 1997.  Watch and learn what Pärt's music has in common with, of all things, Pinocchio


 13. Gong2032 

I confess: this is just silly and I don't care.  A new album by the surviving core -- Daevid Allen, Steve Hillage and Gilli Smyth in particular -- of the early 70's lineup of Gong.  A bit more funk in the mix than in the classic era, but still a lot of hippy trippy peacenlovin' nonsense, tricked out with plenty of sustain and reverb, Eastern drones and sitars, squonking sax, moaning soliloquies by the Good Witch Shakti Yoni, and a return of the entire Planet Gong mythos: pothead pixies, Zero the Hero, flying teapots and the lot.  I cannot begin to account for the extent to which this ridiculous record makes me grin.  Hee hee.


Ram on LA
 14. RAM On L.A. 

Available only as a free download at the link above, this project of the Aquarium Drunkard blog is simplicity itself: gather a collection of working Los Angeles bands and have them cover Paul McCartney's beloved Ram, track by track.  As with any compilation, not everything works as well as it might, but the overall caliber of these covers is high and several can stand beside their originals with no embarrassment on the part of either.  A delight, and the price is right.


15. Darcy James Argue’s Secret SocietyInfernal Machines  

I don't know what makes a "steampunk big band" steampunk, but I do know that Darcy James Argue has absorbed most every lesson there is to absorb from the past fifty years on how to make serious large ensemble jazz.  Sharp, smart contemporary jazz composer meets sharp, smart contemporary jazz players.  Excellent, and swinging, music ensues.

Here, a live performance of "Transit."


Finally, those whom we Honor with a Mention:

16. Bob DylanTogether Through Life  

17. Nadia Sirota (viola) First Things First 
[includes substantial Nico Muhly content]

18. Madness - The Liberty of Norton Folgate

19. John Doe & the Sadies - Country Club

20. Julianna Barwick - Florine EP

Thus endeth the year 2009.


YuleTube 2009


I am no mystic myself, but I am partial to mysticism and especially partial to the strange visions that flow out of the medieval Church and in to such places as the Arthurian legends and, ultimately, wily old Dante.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the best-known Christmas-related examples, establishing the always popular holiday tradition of lopping one another's heads off.  Another example is the "Corpus Christi Carol," with its mysterious imagery of the lavish hall in which a knight lies bleeding from a wound that never heals, a relation perhaps of the Fisher King, or Wagner's Amfortas, in Parsifal.

The text of the Carol comes down to us via a manuscript from the early 16th century, but it is obviously much older than that.  It is best known today, and became associated with Christmas, in a setting by Benjamin Britten.  Britten first incorporated the Carol in to the fifth part of his early (1933) set of choral variations, A Boy Was Born.  In 1961, he returned to it, separating it out and arranging it for solo voice and piano.  That version, rearranged with guitar taking over the piano part, featured prominently on the late Jeff Buckley's reputation-making Grace album.  

Here, Jeff Buckley's recording accompanies a performance by members of Ballet Austin:

While I'm on the subject of 16th century unearthings of medieval Christmas tunes, here is the only one I know ever to crack the UK pop charts: "Gaudete," recorded in 1973 by the great electric folk group, Steeleye Span.  The version below is more recent, from the band's 2004 35th anniversary tour.  The singers here include only two of the members from 1973, most importantly Maddy Prior, still in excellent voice.  

Finally, a non-medieval, wordless Christmas tune, and a reminder that, notwithstanding the churlish carping of Garrison Keillor, Christmas music would not be the same without the manifold contributions of Jewish singers and composers.  This is a repeat from prior years, but one of my personal favorites: Arnold Schoenberg's 1921 Weihnachtsmusik (Christmas Music).

Wishing you (it sez here

Ein frohes und besinnliches Weihnachtsfest!
[A Merry and Reflective/Thoughtful Christmas!]


Photo: Tomb effigy of Jan Kamieniecki, voivode of Podolia, via Wikimedia Commons.


"Oh My, It's Fruitcake Weather!"


The Hometapes label of Portland, OR, has been posting a series of Christmas-related tracks from their artists, under the nom saisonelle "The Eight Days of Hometapes."  

All Tiny Creatures, which centers on Collections of Colonies of Bees/Volcano Choir multi-instrumentalist Thomas Wincek, offers up "Kites," more a sound environment than a song per se, built around an extended excerpt of Truman Capote, supra, reading his story, "A Christmas Memory".  Rather nifty and sure to raise eyebrows if you slip it on to the digital Victrola at your next holiday soiree.

I also recommend the Danes of Slaraffenland (sometime collaborators with the wonderful Efterklang) and their twitchy-thumpy revision of "The Little Drummer Boy," a song of which I would otherwise be tired and sick but as to this version am not.  In contrast to which . . .  

Parumpumpumpum boom ching.


Stompin' at the Savoir Faire

Grape Stomping at Grgich Hills by wallyg

Drink drink, drain your glass, raise your glass high!

    -- David Bowie, "Station to Station"

Thanks to Bottle Shock, the film version of George Taber's Judgment of Paris, many learned a version of the story in which two California wines flabbergasted the naysayers by beating out the best of France in a blind tasting in 1976, lending much desired credibility to California's claims to be taken seriously as a wine region.  

The winning white wine was a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena.  That wine is at the center of Bottle Shock, but if you know only what the movie tells you, you have no idea who actually made it.

Chateau Montelena's winemaker at the time was Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, who left that winery shortly after the success of Paris to join with Austin Hills (of the Hills Bros. coffee family) to found Grgich Hills Estate.  For various reasons, Grgich was disinclined to be portrayed in the film version, so he was written out of the story.  This is just one of numerous liberties taken by the film: other than the exterior of the main building at Chateau Montelena, for example, all those lovely vineyard landscapes (as well as all the scenes in "France") were actually shot over the mountains in Sonoma County.  

Now, however, we can offer a short film actually starring Mike Grgich, as well as Orson WellesJames Mason, the real Ronald McDonald, and some jolly elves from Gallo.

From the happy libertarians at, here is the amazing True Story of how free markets, competition and [comparative] freedom from nitpicky government regulation allowed the California wine industry to rise from its subjection to Old Europe to accomplish its manifest destiny to become the brave new world's wine superpower:


Photo: Grape Stomping at Grgich Hills Cellar, Rutherford, CA, by Flickr user wallyg, used under Creative Commons license.


Rights? Quite Right!

Bill of Rights mini Today is Bill of Rights Day, acknowledging the ratification and adoption of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution on December 15, 1791.

Bill of Rights Day was reputedly first proclaimed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, on the Bill's 150th anniversary.  President Obama opted this year for an omnibus proclamation, including Bill of Rights Day in a package with Human Rights Day and Human Rights Week.

Tim Lynch, of the Cato Institute, takes stock and finds many of our enumerated Rights honored more in the breach than in th'observance in these times.  

Google, meanwhile, goes its own way and takes the occasion to honor LL Zamenhof, the deviser of Esperanto, on its home page, drawing the sort of unreasonable ire that only the Internet -- and rights of free expression! in the language of your choice! -- can generate.

The Presidential proclamation urges us all "to mark these observances with appropriate ceremonies and activities."   I recommend that you exercise your unenumerated right -- it is in the penumbra of one or another of The First Ten, I am quite sure -- to take five minutes from your day to observe and to meditate upon this stately, silent, kaleidoscopic and slightly trippy visual tribute, by Philip Bell

The Illustrated Bill of Rights from Philip Bell on Vimeo.

[There is a great deal of detail and fine print in this video.  I strongly recommend viewing it in full-screen mode on the fullest screen you have available.]


Cross-posted to Declarations & Exclusions.


What Can a Poe Boy Do?

Poe pop art chelseadaniele

Can it be denied that, were he but alive at this hour -- as our contemporary, I mean, not as a man of extraordinary and disturbingly great age -- Edgar Allan Poe would be a fine, vicious lit-blogger?

From an 1849 review of James Russell Lowell's "A Fable for Critics", in which Poe finds occasion to bring higher mathematics to bear on the work of now-forgotten poets Cornelius Mathews and William Ellery Channing:

Mr. Mathews once wrote some sonnets 'On Man,' and Mr. Channing some lines on 'A Tin Can,' or something of that kind — and if the former gentleman be not the very worst poet that ever existed on the face of the earth, it is only because he is not quite so bad as the latter.  To speak algebraically: — Mr. M. is execrable, but Mr. C is x plus 1-ecrable.


Source: Edgar Allan Poe, Essays and Reviews (Library of America, 1984),
p. 818.  Emphasis added.

Illustration: "Poe Pop Art" by Flickr user chelseadaniele, used under Creative Commons license.


The Scariest Poem I Know


Below is a recent video interpretation of what I think of as the scariest poem I know: Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus." 

The reading here is Plath's own, although some pauses have been added to the original recording for purposes of this video.  The heavy breathing at the start is added, as well.  The recording was made for the BBC in October, 1962, shortly after the poem was completed and slightly more than three months before Plath's suicide by gas oven in February 1963.  

I first encountered the poem around 1972 or 1973, as a middle teenager with no direct experience of the sort of extreme psychological states that seem to have been the poet's daily bread and nightly butter.  The Holocaust references were always overplayed, and they seem more so with each passing year, but the poem is as much about sensationalizing the awful as anything else, and the blunt shock value of those images was perhaps greater in 1962, with the war less than twenty years past.  As a snapshot of pain, and of the calculated dramatization of pain, the poem remains shudderingly effective and the final stanza, ending with the indelible "I eat men like air", is misogyny bait of the finest quality.

 «Lady Lazarus», de Sylvia Plath from blocsdelletres on Vimeo.

"The Applicant," which immediately precedes "Lady Lazarus" in the posthumous collection Ariel, has recently been given pride of place as the first poem, and the only poem of Plath's, in the Library of America American Poets Project collection of Poems from the Women's Movement. Although she was embraced by later feminists, if only in an oversimplified version casting her as a sainted victim of male cruelty and indifference, and although she wrote explicitly as a woman, Plath was never really "of" the women's movement, which only gained momentum and organization after her death.  It is just as well: if the Women's Movement collection proves anything, it is the old saw that nothing is better calculated than articulating a political agenda to make a strong poet turn out weak poems.  Had she lived, perhaps Sylvia Plath would have fallen prey to that trap.  Untethered to dogma and unhampered by any obligation to show solidarity with others in a cause, she was able to craft poisonous treats such as this.

 The Applicant - Sylvia Plath from blocsdelletres on Vimeo.

John Berryman may have had the last line of "The Applicant" -- Will you marry it, marry it, marry it -- in mind when he wrote: "Them lady poets must not marry, pal."  Not that Berryman was the most reliable judge of these things.


Photo: "Dachau" by Flickr user RebeccaPollard, used under Creative Commons license.


2009 Song of the Year 2009 for the Year 2009:
"She Made Light of the Dark As I Laid Her Low"

I did not get a "this is the music I really liked this year" post up in 2008, but I am at work on such a post for 2009.  While that post percolates through the mental bureaucracy and spiritual inertia that is my blogging praxis these days -- to emerge, I hope, before the year expires -- I will take this occasion to leap ahead, to look back, to tip my hand, and to doff my hat to the defining song on my clear choice for Favorite Album of 2009.

The album is Sweet Billy Pilgrim's Twice Born Men and the song is "Kalypso."  I am repeating myself a bit here, having already enthused at length over this selfsame song this past July.  But what care I for repetition, when such a fine song's at stake?

Since I last thrust it upon my readers, "Kalpypso" has acquired a second official video interpretation, directed by Phil Hopkins:

I remain more partial to this earlier (longer/more complete) version, from Yuka Fujii:

I take it as a sign of how really splendid this album is that the song I like least out of the lot -- "Longshore Drift" -- is still a thrilling bit of music, largely redeemed by the way it veers off in to ArvoPärtland at the 3 minute mark. Its best qualities are nicely captured in this semi-official video version from Frances Main:

Now back to work on that Favorites of the Year post.  Stay tuned.