Recommended Albums #73

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Walter Martin: Arts & Leisure (2016)

Ex-Walkmen singer-songwriter Walter Martin has an easy, whimsical, tongue-in-cheek way with a song that calls to mind people like Jens Lekman and even Paul Simon.

walter-martinArts & Leisure is a travelogue of sorts. With wry specificity Martin takes the listener on a tour of places he’s seen, jobs he’s had and people he’s been, with a love of art at the forefront of much of the album.

I don’t know what’s more of a kick here, the lyrics or the playful, kooky arrangements. Percussion like the sound of coconuts takes you “Down by the Singing Sea”, and “Amsterdam” throws bass harmonica and various whistlie and tinklie things into a rollicking mix that may bring Jacques Brell to mind. Fun!

His solo debut, 2014’s We’re All Young Together was a children’s album for adults–something like They Might Be Giants might offer. But on Arts & Leisure, Martin’s childlike playful high-spiritedness is still intact as he explores a wider world. Truly this is an artist with a refreshingly unique world view.

Listen to: “Down by the Singing Sea”

Listen to: “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich and Famous”

Listen to: “Amsterdam”

See also: https://edcyphers.com/2016/03/11/songs-you-may-have-missed-575/

Recommended Albums #72

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Oh Land: Wishbone (2013)

Danish ballet dancer-turned singer Nanna Øland Fabricius (Anglicized as Oh Land) turned in her strongest album with her third effort, 2013’s Wishbone.

A schizophrenic blend of Scandinavian electropop, this frothy funfair of a record reaches in many directions but ultimately lands squarely in smart pop territory consistently enough to make for a satisfying listen.

oh-land-2Fans of artists such as Goldfrapp and Robyn may have ears better acclimated to the chilly electronic sound collage that frames the tunes–it’s not the most organic-sounding music.

And in fact the busy, idiosyncratic electronic sound palate here has cost Wishbone more favorable reviews from some critics who seem to see it as distractive, overdone, more sheen than substance.

Yeah, I remember rock critics panning the first Boston album in similar terms. And that one found a bit of an audience if memory serves. The point being, if any artistic work delivers the hooks, well, guilty pleasures are no less pleasurable.

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And there’s no denying that the dizzying lyrical spit of “Renaissance Girls” and the perfect pop/funk of “Pyromaniac” are a blast to listen to.

And for change of pace, “Love You Better” will hit you in the feels with an almost too reflective acoustic guitar ballad:

I will love you better
Better when I’m blind
I will love you better when I’m blind
‘Cause you’ll always be a beauty
Living in my mind
I will love you better when I’m blind

If radio didn’t embrace songs like these (and it didn’t) it was more a statement about the state of radio than the quality of this music.

 

Listen to: “Renaissance Girls”

 

Listen to: “Bird in an Aeroplane”

 

Listen to: “Pyromaniac”

 

Listen to: “Love You Better”

 

Listen to: “Cherry on Top”

 

See also: https://edcyphers.com/2016/11/27/songs-you-may-have-missed-602/

Recommended Albums #71

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Lonely Robot: Please Come Home (2015)

A broad appreciation of music often requires the effort of shedding certain personal prejudices we may have acquired, whether it’s a dislike for soft rock, an aversion to steel guitar, an intolerance for unpolished vocals, or simply the lack of interest in a particular genre.

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Of course, if you’ve decided you really don’t enjoy the blues, for example, it’s valid to stop trying to like the blues. Appreciation shouldn’t be work.

The prejudice Lonely Robot’s Please Come Home helped dispel for me was against female vocals in progressive tock. Weaned on Pink Floyd, Yes and Jethro Tull like so many my age, I’d had a deep-rooted belief that this genre just didn’t work with pretty female vocals out front.

But Lonely Robot is indeed a prog album–though it’s more proggy in terms of its atmosphere and aesthetic than by virtue of any compositional complexity or lyrical impenetrability. And it does feature prominent female vocals on several songs. And it works.

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Lonely Robot is the nom de plume of singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer John Mitchell, one of the busiest and most prolific figures of the British progressive rock scene. As a member of bands such as Arena, It Bites, Kino, Frost and The Urbane he’s seemingly always either recording or touring the work of one or another band.

This time he decided to step out on his own, although many modern prog notables appear as support. This concept album, inspired by Mitchell’s love of science fiction, is similar to the work of fellow Brits Steve Thorne and Dave Kerzner, who carefully craft albums of thoughtful and melodic crossover prog and record them with the help of an impressive cast of luminaries of the genre.

Please Come Home‘s eleven tracks are linked lyrically by certain motifs and phrases, and Mitchell describes its arc thusly:

“The concept is about the way in which some ancient civilisations – for instance, the Mayans, the Egyptians and the Chinese – had technology way beyond what they should have had at the time. And I’m talking about the millennium up to 1000AD. It’s as if some people had been transplanted onto the planet from another world and time.”

As for project name, in addition to saying Lonely Robot sounded much more interesting than releasing an album under the name John Mitchell, he says:

“It represents the human condition. I’m not suggesting that human beings behave like robots, but so many people lead regimented lives and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and not realise or know how to get out of it.”

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Although the record contains enough uptempo tunes to maintain rock cred, ballads such as “Why Do We Stay” and “Humans Being” are some of the most alluring and affecting compositions here. Gilmouresque guitar solos add to the gloomy Englishness of the album.

If the feel of Please Come Home appeals to you, check out the above-mentioned Steve Thorne and Dave Kerzner as well as perhaps this blog’s most oft-recommended band, Blackfield.

Accessible melodies are a strong suit for Mitchell and he plays to that strength here. Although fans of Frost and It Bites may argue, I think this is his best work yet.

Listen to: “Why Do We Stay?”

Listen to: “Lonely Robot” (edit)

Listen to: “Oubilette”

Listen to: “Construct/Obstruct”

Listen to: “Humans Being”

See also: https://edcyphers.com/2013/05/07/songs-you-may-have-missed-409/

See also: https://edcyphers.com/2012/03/15/songs-you-may-have-missed-53/

Recommended Albums #70

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Phosphorescent: Here’s to Taking it Easy (2010)

While listening to the perfectly-titled Here’s to Taking it Easy by Matthew Houck, who records under the nom de plume of Phosphorescent, I can’t shake the feeling that this guy could be headed for Elliott Smith status someday.

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With lilting, haunting melodies and simple, evocative lyrics sprawling lazily across relaxed, country-tinged arrangements, his songs have the effortless feel of Lucinda Williams’ best work.

When the layered harmonies join in on “Nothing Was Stolen” and “Mermaid Parade”, perfect unison is eschewed in favored of a sloppier, singalong feel that evokes The Band. This isn’t about perfect takes or instrumental virtuosity. It’s all about the feel, and the feel is reflective, forlorn, world-weary and somehow soothing at the same time.

The London Evening Standard praised Houck as “the most significant American in his field since Kurt Cobain.” And one Amazon reviewer observed:

“Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck is probably one of those American writers and singers who knows that in ten years time a coterie of very hip young bands will record a huge tribute to his songs…and they will name check him as an influence”

If you wander through a Pro-Tools world with a 70’s vinyl heart, songs like “Mermaid Parade” will break that heart–in a good way.

Listen to: “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)”

Listen to: “We’ll Be Here Soon”

Listen to: “The Mermaid Parade”

Listen to: “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)”

Listen to: “Heaven, Sittin Down”

Recommended Albums #69

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The Decemberists: Picaresque (2005)

Picaresque was the Decemberists’ final indie label album before they signed with Capitol records, released the rock opera masterpiece The Hazards of Love and followed it with a number one album, The King is Dead, among other accomplishments.

And although I just referred to the 2009 folk/prog conceptual Hazards as a masterpiece, I would call Picaresque their best collection of songs–perhaps the best any band produced in the decade of the 2000’s.

bookLit rock…geek rock…British folk-infused Dickensian rock…whatever label you apply to this iconoclastic assembly’s music, songwriter Colin Meloy’s hyper-literate, hyper-imaginative tunes set them apart, and earn them more fans and critical acclaim with each release.

Meloy has always liked a good murder ballad, and death and tragic circumstance are staples of his dark-yet-alluring tunes. Put across with appealing melodies in a dialect seemingly all his own, his lyrics typically are as cheerful as the black plague, as exemplified by “We Both Go Down Together” and the epic “Mariner’s Revenge Song” here.

But unlike most bands who specialize in dark, sulky angst it’s clearly a vaudeville here. Of course, the character traits may ring familiar and the harsh lessons may apply in real life. But the songs themselves, constructed out of archaic language and given a veneer of Thespian melodrama, are like the rock music equivalent of unsanitized Brothers Grimm fairy tales. There’s danger, but it’s all ultimately charming, fanciful, bewitching.

If this album appeals to you, the good news is that there is a whole lot more Decemberists catalogue to explore. This band has yet to make a dud album. And my recommendation if you tackle The Hazards of Love next is to listen to the entire 60-minute piece uninterrupted and undistracted, with both lyrics and a concordance at hand. Then listen again. It’s jaw-droppingly brilliant and the best evidence one could cite to make an argument that the era of the ambitious art-rock concept album isn’t quite a thing of the past.

Listen to: “We Both Go Down Together”

Listen to: “The Engine Driver”

Listen to: “The Sporting Life”

Listen to: “16 Military Wives”

Listen to: “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”

Recommended Albums #68

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Texas Tornados: Texas Tornados (1990)

Texas Tornados: Zone of Our Own (1991)

Given country music’s current state of relative stagnation, when a hundred bro-country clones churn out assembly-line anthems to beer, ladies in tight jeans, and the dubious unrefined charms of rural life, it’s hard to imagine there was a time it was all so different, so diverse, and so fun.

From the mid-1980’s to the early 1990’s country music introduced us to such iconoclastic acts as Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss, Dwight Yoakam, The Mavericks, k.d. lang, Los Lobos, Steve Earle…and a Tex-Mex supergroup who blended country with rootsy Texas rock and blues as well as Mexican folk and conjunto, mashing it all seamlessly, effortlessly into one great party.

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Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers had previously worked together in the Sir Douglas Quintet, whose band name was chosen in the hopes of competing for live bookings at the height of 60’s British Invasion Anglomania.

Freddie Fender made a living recording Spanish-language versions of American hits, then penning a few of his own, including “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” which was a breakthrough #1 pop hit in America in 1975.

Flaco Jimenez took the mantle of conjunto accordion king from his father Santiago, at first enjoying regional success in and around his native San Antonio before breaking through to wider success, appearing on records by Buck Owens, Ry Cooder, the Rolling Stones and others.

In something of a parallel to another supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys (who’d released their first album just a year previous) the individual careers of all four had cooled off when they joined forces for the first time in 1989. Their self-titled debut, released the following year, was a resounding critical success and performed well on the country charts despite the lack of a single to propel sales.

txThough some of the songs had seen previous release by the Sir Douglas Quintet or Augie Meyers, none had enjoyed major-label nationwide distribution, so when Reprise released Texas Tornados it may as well had been an album comprised of newly-written originals. The band released a Spanish-language version of their debut album as well.

Zone of Our Own, their 1991 follow-up, continues the same glorious collision of Tex-Mex styles with nearly equal success. From song to song, whether bandleader Sahm takes the lead, or Fender, or Meyers, and whether it’s a Texas blues rave-up or soulful ballad or accordion workout, an unabating party atmosphere pervades.

The Texas Tornados are no more, and with the death of Doug Sahm in 1999 it’s assured that one of music’s most original and distinctive bands ever is lost for good.

But their exuberant, celebratory mashup of styles is preserved on two albums that transport one to a musical border town whose magic stems from the fact that it is really a town without borders.

 

Listen to: “Who Were You Thinkin’ Of”

 

Listen to: “(Hey Baby) Que Paso”

 

Listen to: “La Mucura”

 

Listen to: “(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone”

 

Listen to: “Dinero”

 

Listen to: “Did I Tell You”

Recommended Albums #67

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Von Hertzen Brothers: New Day Rising (2015)

As prog albums go, this is one “from the heart”.

Finland’s Von Hertzen Brothers are at their melodic best on New Day Rising, an ebullient, heartfelt pop prog collection that displays a diversity of musical influence from AC/DC to Pink Floyd.

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The band are big fish in little Finland, where they’ve topped album charts and won that country’s Grammy equivalent (2006 Best Rock Album). Neighboring Denmark has embraced them as well. But in this country they are mainly known to fans of progressive rock, some of whom have given this latest effort a tepid reception on the basis of it not being “prog enough” and containing too many songs with love as the theme.

That’s their problem.

The job of this site, I’m happy to say, is simply to identify recommendation-worthy music regardless of genre. So whether the VHB’s have lived up to their “prog” credentials or merely created a very good pop rock album, it’s music worth a vetting if you’re a fan of well-made rock music, which is becoming more of a niche genre every year that rap and bad electronic dance music dominate the stateside charts.

Check out the video for the uplifting and anthemic “Hold Me Up”. While many of the best prog bands can leave you spellbound with great musicianship or epic songs, the Von Hertzens (also known as an impressive live band) clearly demonstrate a charismatic knack that seems to come from not taking it all–or themselves–too seriously.

As drummer Mikko states, “Von Hertzen is German and means ‘from the heart’. That’s what we try to always keep in mind when writing or performing. We feel the music is pretty much useless, if it doesn’t come from our hearts. The point of music, any kind of music, is to create wonderful experiences that are somehow elevating and encouraging. That’s our mission. The music is our instrument”.

Mission accomplished.

Listen to: “Hold Me Up”

Listen to: “Dreams”

Listen to: “The Destitute”

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