Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Top Ten of 2004

It still seems a bit early to be finalizing such a list, but this is xpn's world and we just live in it, so here goes:

  1. Julia Fordham – That’s Life (Vanguard) It’s rare when an album achieves the quality of Concrete Love (2002), with songwriting, performance and production excellence. It’s rarer still when the next album is essentially a continuation of the same session with another batch of superb songs, perfectly executed, a true gift.
  2. Nellie McKay – Get Away From Me (Columbia) After almost overlooking this record when I first received an advance copy in late 2003 (the first listen didn’t register), it ultimately took control of my car player like no other release in recent memory. A witty, wise, wordy, and tuneful debut; that she was just seventeen (you know what I mean) when this was written and recorded makes it all the more remarkable.
  3. k.d. lang – Hymns of the 49th Parallel (Nonesuch) Lang’s enormous talent is put to best use in this tribute to Canadian songwriters. Every track is a gem, and the title is completely justified, and not just for “Hallelujah.”
  4. Ron Isley & Burt Bacharach – Here I Am: Ron Isley Sings Burt Bacharach (Dreamworks) Going way beyond a simple rehash of the Bacharach-David catalog, this project displays a dynamic partnership between Ronald Isley and Burt Bacharach who makes a strong case for his being a musical renaissance man with his multiple roles of songwriter, arranger, producer, conductor, and musician, and who would’ve ever thought that Tonio K would resurface as a lyricist in the Hal David role. This disc provides a listening experience that I find totally cathartic.
  5. Keane – Hopes and Fears (Interscope) Anthemic Brit-pop lives, and is rarely done better than what this three man band (voice, keyboards, drums) puts down on their debut release. They seem like really nice kids too.
  6. Johnny A – Get Inside (Favored Nations) I could totally listen to this amazing guitarist play anything, and this new record serves up a great batch of new tunes. The original material is great, but he shows such a wealth of range and musical knowledge when playing live, I almost want him to do more cover songs.
  7. Chris Botti – When I Fall In Love (Columbia) I didn’t think Botti could better his rock album, Night Sessions (2001), but here he completely abandons the rock for a set of standards and has produced one of the best chill-out records ever. As 2004 ends, his appearances on daytime television, especially Oprah are launching sales of this disc into the stratosphere, much to the delight of his label.
  8. Rebecca Martin – People Behave Like Ballads (MaxJazz) Together with the Isley and Botti records, this disc provided a soothing office soundtrack all year long offering a nice counterpoint to the work environment. Almost reminiscent of the melodic mellow jazz style of Once Blue, but decidedly more jazz and less pop, this album has a wealth of understated melodic pleasures that are only revealed gradually over time with repeat listening.
  9. Holly Palmer – I Confess (Bombshell) A great third album, maybe even better than her soon to finally be released excellent second album Tender Hooks (2000). Being dropped twice in a career by essentially the same label (different regimes), both times with completed albums in the can and promo copies distributed might cause a lesser artist to hang it up. Holly responded by forming her own label and is now doing her best work ever.
  10. Jonatha Brooke – Back in the Circus (Bad Dog) The title refers to her move back to New York City, however her music seems to have gained more from her 2003 tour of Germany as opening act for the Hooters. That experience inspired her first ever cover songs, the new originals are some of her best songwriting ever and Eric Bazilian’s participation is a big plus, all of which add up to this being her most enjoyable album to date.

Just Missed the List: My top three were easy, they fell into place one-two-three. The next seven were way more difficult, as the following six albums struck me as equally worthy of being top ten material and it was painful to leave them out. I could very easily have picked an all-female top ten this year; last year my top ten only included two female artists (Dido and Roseanne Cash).

  • Kasey Chambers – Wayward Angel
  • Jem – Finally Woken
  • Norah Jones – Feels Like Home
  • Eleni Mandell – Afternoon
  • Sia – Colour the Small One (Import)
  • Zero 7 – When It Falls

More Great Records: 2004 was an excellent year, with many more great records by Gabriela Anders, The Blue Nile, J.J. Cale, The Cardigans, Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, Cowboy Junkies, Crosby & Nash, The Damnwells, Tina Dico, Five for Fighting, John Fogerty, Gov’t Mule, Daryl Hall, Hall & Oates, Juliana Hatfield, Mark Knopfler, Leo Kottke, Allison Moorer, Alex Parks, Queen Latifah, Sarah Randle, Chris Rea, Garrison Starr, Martina Topley-Bird, and The Trash Can Sinatras.

Monday, November 22, 2004

24 Hours in NYC w/Dave, Holly & Soraya

Holly Palmer and Emm Gryner brought their mini tour of the Northeast to New York City on Saturday night at the Fez, and after warmup shows at The Point in Bryn Mawr, PA on Thursday and at The Call in Providence, R.I. on Friday where Holly played opening act to audiences who knew little of her material, the Fez show was a homecoming of sorts where Holly headlined and gave what may have been her best performance ever. I'll leave it to Dave Curtis to cover the details in a review he plans to write for Holly's website, which I will also post here as soon as it's done.

The pressure was on me to record the show on Holly's behalf, as arranged by Dave, Holly, and her manager. Having never done this before (at least in a professional capacity), I quickly realized what I should have brought (more sturdy tripod, headphones, flashlight), however in spite of the limitations, I managed to record a beautiful looking video using brother Paul's Hi-8 Sony Handicam, and we also got a perfect recording of the board feed using my CD recorder. The next move will be to join the board audio with the video on the computer as soon as I determine what studio software to use. We also have the same quality video and audio recordings of Emm Gryner's opening set. Paul also did a nice video shoot of Holly's show at the Point, with excellent quality sound recorded by the microphones in the camera, which I rush produced to DVD and audio CD packages which were much appreciated by Holly and Dave.

On Sunday, Dave & I attended Latino Expo at the Marriott Marquis Hotel on Times Square, to see Columbian-American singer songwriter Soraya perform. I consider myself extremely lucky that Dave happened to notice Soraya's first album back in 1996 and bring it to my attention because it is unlikely that I would have found it otherwise. Her first two albums in both Spanish and English language versions are pure singer-songwriter brilliance, and her latest album also approaches that same level of excellence. After the first album, the English versions have not even been released here; the second album was released in English only in Japan, and we just learned yesterday that an English language version of her latest was released in Canada; Soraya's manager generously offered to send copies.

With small U.S. sales, most likely none outside the Latin music community, and no U.S. appearances that we've ever been aware of, this is an artist that I never expected to have an opportunity to see perform, which is why this was a rare Sunday where music trumped football on my priority list. It was even more of a happy surprise to be able to meet Soraya before the event, arranged by her manager due to Dave's position at Sony. The conversation was great and went way beyond the typical pleasantries of the average meet & greet.

After about a half hour of tedious welcoming remarks by various New York City politicians and a patience-testing recruitment presentation by Walden University (an online college), Soraya took the stage with her acoustic guitar to sing "Casi" from her latest album Soraya (2003), for which she won the Latin Grammy Award for Best Singer-Songwriter Album. In addition to being a talented musician, singer, and songwriter, she has recently undertaken to work to further breast cancer awareness as a result of her three year bout with the disease. She's traveled throughout the U.S. , Central and South America speaking on the topic in her capacity as spokesperson for livingwithit.org, an online resource for women dealing with breast cancer, sponsored by Aventis Oncology.

During the next two hours while she did a breakout session on breast cancer, Dave and I went back to the hotel to check out and get the video camera which I used to record her 3pm set of three or four songs which included "Casi" again and the wonderful single "De Repente" ("Suddenly") from her first album En Esta Noche (On Nights Like This). Despite some audience jostling of the tripod, the video came out looking great with excellent audience sound recorded by the camera; thanks again to Paul. Judging by the crowd who wanted Soraya to autograph her CD single provided free at the Expo by Aventis, it's safe to assume that she won a number of new fans with this performance. After a quick visit to yet another great New York Thai restaurant, Pongsri (near 48th & 8th), we hit the road, dropping Dave off and getting home in time to watch the Eagles on tape delay, improve their record to 9-1. It may sound like I've seen one too many beer commercials, but I can honestly say that it doesn't get any better than this.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Phil Roy - Tower Records, Philadelphia, 11/16/04

David Dye brought the World Cafe to Tower Records in Philadelphia tonight to celebrate the retail release of Live at the World Cafe, Vol. 17 - Three Flights Up. For live music, he enlisted Phil Roy, a native Philadelphian singer-songwriter, best known for his song "Hope in a Hopeless World" which has been recorded by Paul Young, Pops Staples, and Widespread Panic who recorded it thinking it was a Pops Staples composition, according to Roy. Roy played acoustic guitar and sang, accompanied by John Lilly of the Hooters (the Philadelphia band, not the restaurant) on lead acoustic guitar and fellow Philly-local Ben Arnold on keyboards, who also played on Roy's original recording of "Hope in a Hopeless World."

After starting with a new tune ("Willow") to be included on his forthcoming CD, his set consisted of his best known songs, "Hope in a Hopeless World" which featured a blazing acoustic guitar solo by Lilly, "Undeniably Human," "Amazing," and "Melt" which Roy credited, along with WXPN for being responsible for his somewhat recent marriage and relocation from New York back to Philadelphia although he did not elaborate on exactly how the song or the radio station contributed to this assumedly happy state of affairs. Roy described following the recent WXPN 885 song countdown from the recording studio in Chicago where he was working on his new record, and being pleasantly surprised to see "Melt" included in the 885 greatest songs of all time. After the set, Roy and Dye signed copies of the World Cafe CD which was just released to retail today. Dye seemed pleased with the turnout, and I took the opportunity to thank him for the great interview he did with k.d. lang recently on the World Cafe.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

It's That Time of Year Again, WXPN's Top Fifty Albums of 2004

Being it's now less than two weeks till Thanksgiving, I guess we can give xpn some slack in starting their drive for listeners to submit top ten lists for 2004 so early. As a year with some great new music, this will be both easy and hard; easy in that my one, two and three are locked in, hard in that there are easily thirty-nine great records all seemingly worthy of one of the seven remaining spots on the list. Even narrowing it down, there are still about fifteen that are strongly resisting elimination - I may have to give them all another spin or two. To get in the spirit, and partially because it was finally just posted this week to the Rambles website, here is my review again of the Julia Fordham CD, That's Life, which has a lock as my number one. http://www.rambles.net/fordham_life04.html

Here's my Rambles review (pre-blog) of Nellie McKay's Get Away From Me which is residing happily in my number two slot. http://www.rambles.net/mckay_getaway04.html

Anyone who's read the previous entries here for the past few months will find no surprise in my number three selection, k.d. lang's excellent Hymns of the 49th Parallel.

After that it gets bloody, with the following CDs from 2004 all seeming worthy of top ten designation, each in and of itself. I will find a way to whittle it down between now and xpn's deadline for submission. Here now is the rest of my best of, in alphabetical order.

  • Johnny A - Get Inside
  • Gabriela Anders - Eclectica
  • The Blue Nile - High
  • Jonatha Brooke - Back in the Circus
  • J.J. Cale - To Tulsa and Back
  • Cardigans - Long Gone Before Daylight
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter - Between Here & Gone
  • Kasey Chambers - Wayward Angel
  • Ray Charles - Genius Loves Company
  • Elvis Costell0 - The Delivery Man
  • Cowboy Junkies - One Soul Now
  • David Crosby & Graham Nash - Crosby-Nash
  • Damnwells - Bastards of the Beat
  • Tina Dico - Far
  • Five for Fighting - The Battle for Everything
  • John Fogerty - Dejuvu All Over Again
  • Gov't Mule - Deja Voodoo
  • Daryl Hall - Can't Stop Dreaming
  • Daryl Hall & John Oates - Our Kind of Soul
  • Juliana Hatfield - In Exile Deo
  • Ron Isley & Burt Bacharach - Isley Meets Bacharach
  • Jem - Finally Woken
  • Norah Jones - Feels Like Home
  • Keane - Hopes and Fears
  • Mark Knopfler - Shangri-La
  • Leo Kottke - Try and Stop Me
  • Queen Latifah - The Dana Owens Album
  • Eleni Mandell - Afternoon
  • Rebecca Martin - People Behave Like Ballads
  • Allison Moorer - The Duel
  • Holly Palmer - I Confess
  • Alex Parks - Introduction (Import)
  • Sarah Randle - The Sparrow (Import)
  • Chris Rea - The Blue Jukebox (Import)
  • Sia - Colour the Small One (Import)
  • Garrison Starr - Airstreams & Satellites
  • Martina Topley-Bird - Quixotic (Import)/Anything (Domestic)
  • Trashcan Sinatras - Weightlifting
  • Zero 7 - When It Falls

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Wawa: Great Coffee, Great Muzak

Not only does Wawa sell the best coffee on the planet, not only does Wawa sell the best diet iced tea on the planet, not only are they open 24 hours/day with many convenient locations in the mid Atlantic states, not only do their locations with gasoline sell it at the lowest possible price, but now Wawa officially has the best muzak I've ever encountered. Up till now I've occasionally felt sort of stupid for enjoying the baby boomer oldies that play over the sound system in every Wawa store, but today while I was pouring my late afternoon cup of steaming java, I realized that I was hearing Valerie Carter's version of Ooh Child (the old Five Stairsteps hit) from her Wild Child album (1978), one of the best and most overlooked albums ever. This album was my holy grail to find on CD for many years until I finally found a Japanese pressing at an affordable price in Montreal some years ago. Way to go Wawa.

Wawa Website: http://www.wawa.com/
A Talk With Valerie Carter: http://www.james-taylor.com/features/carter/

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Eleni Mandell & Shivaree - The Point, 10/27/04

Eleni Mandell did another superb set at The Point in Bryn Mawr, PA on Wednesday night, opening for Shivaree. It was her second time here in the last few months, both times as opening act; it's time they booked her to headline. In any case, the small but appreciative audience was treated to a nice sampling of her five albums, concentrating on her latest, the excellent Afternoon. Mandell played acoustic guitar and sang, accompanied only by an upright bass. On the Tom Waits cover it was just bass, voice and finger snaps - just awesome.

Iowa City
Look Out Below
American Boy (dedicated to John Kerry)
Just a Dream
The One That Got Away (Incredible version of the Tom Waits song, holding glass of wine)
It's Raining (Allen Toussaint)
Maybe, Yes
He Lied

It was the last night of this tour, and Mandell had no problem selling out the last of the CDs she brought, leaving none to carry back to L.A. Unbeknownst to most everyone in attendance at this show (including me), Tom Waits turns out to be a common denominator between Eleni Mandell and Shivaree. Early on in her career, Mandell became friends with and was mentored by L.A. hipster Chuck E. Weiss (subject of Rickie Lee Jones' "Chuck E's in Love") who introduced her to his friend and her big influence, Tom Waits. Shivaree's connection to Waits starts with keyboardist Danny McGough, who toured with Waits prior to forming Shivaree.

McGough and guitarist Duke McVinnie, representing two thirds of Shivaree were not present for this show. As explained by lead singer Ambrosia Parsley, the pair were busy with other projects in the aftermath of a four year period of record company problems and finally recording their next album which is due out soon. Performing with a four piece backup group including a drummer who had only been with the band for about ninety minutes at showtime, Parsley offered up an appealing mix of rock, folk, jazz, and 40's style pop.

I'm not sure whether it was the songs or the between song comments that were more appealing, but Parsley does have a way with a story, starting with the unlikely premise of a funny story about her brother getting cancer, then regaling the audience with a tale of getting locked outside her brother's house at night, in her underwear, with a pit bull in heat. This epic was spread out in installments between several songs. Another story dealt with her grandmother stabbing her grandfather before being smothered to death by him.

Parsley hardly needed the Lisa Loeb glasses to accomplish quirky, but the sound was good, the band played well, and the songs were enjoyable. The only flaw in the set was that the band failed to "learn" the one song anybody would know by Shivaree, the WXPN favorite "Goodnight Moon" which was also used to great effect by Quentin Tarantino during the Kill Bill, Vol. 2 credits. The lame promise that they would learn it before coming back for two more Point shows later this month didn't hold much water for the somewhat disappointed audience. Breach, an EP they sold at the show for $5.00 contains two good sounding tracks from the forthcoming full length CD, Who's Got Trouble, as well as three additional tracks not on the album.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Joe Sample - World Cafe Live, 10/22/04 & WXPN Studio Tour

It was a good thing that this show was not advertised as a solo piano performance because I might not have flipped for the $30 ticket price, in which case we would have missed one of the most unique and special musical experiences ever. As it turned out, this was a rare oppotunity to hear a true jazz master render a virtuosic recital of the history of American music on piano. Sample's musical knowlege and experience is truly encyclopedic. You can enjoy this musical history lesson yourself on Sample's latest release, Soul Shadows from which he played everything save for the title track (which is the only vocal on the record). In concert, each tune was prefaced with an explanation of its significance, including detailed descriptions of the places and times from which these compositions originated. To perform this material, Sample channels the players of the time to let you hear these songs as they would have been heard back then. All of the songs were great to hear but some were truly astounding; I thought I knew "The Entertainer," but you've never really heard Scott Joplin's signature tune until you hear Sample play it with all the soulfulness of the players who performed it back in the early part of the 20th century in the backwater towns of Louisiana.

Sample gives similarly authentic renderings of many classics from the American songbook, such as Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'," Al Jolson's "Avalon," Duke Ellington's "I Got it Bad and That Ain't Good," Jellyroll Morton's "Shreveport Stomp," and the Gershwins' "I Got Rhythm," and "Embraceable You." Other than the title track, the only other Sample original on the record is "Spellbound" which in solo piano treatment allows the listener to fully appreciate the simple beauty of the melody. It was great after the show to meet Sample, shake his hand, and thank him for all the great music over the years.

Before the show we took the member tour of the new WXPN studios and I must say that the folks who work on this station who already had the greatest jobs in the world, now must think that they've died and gone to radio heaven. This complex of offices and studios not only has beautiful design and construction but the studio equipment lends new meaning to the idea of state of the art. It's a testament to the commitment of the station's listeners and sponsors that they were able to raise the kind of money it took to build this ultimate radio station. The World Cafe Live venue, now just three weeks old, christened its new menu this night, keeping some of the fussier cuisine but adding a few more down to earth items, like the deliciously spicy hot Cuban pulled pork sandwich that I enjoyed as part of the comp dinner that the venue offered to make up for the muffed meal on opening night. Although the service was still a little bumpy, they'll likely work it all out before long. Bruce Warren said numerous times before the WXPN move that "this place will knock your socks off." I'd say that's an understatement.