Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Best CDs of 2009

Here are my picks for the ten best CDs of 2009.

1. Annekei - Touch

Listen to Melt

Japan Knows What We Don't; This is Annekei’s third solo album and fourth album overall, all major label releases in Japan. This fine set of mostly Annekei originals will already be familiar to those who have seen her play New York’s Lower East Side over the last few years. Songs like Melt, Chills, and Keep Playing have been real crowd-pleasers. Song for Ida Marie is an especially pretty song that Annekei wrote for her neice who lives in Denmark. Sadly, the presence of Lee Ritenour as guitarist and producer has yet to secure an American release for this beautiful piece of work. In addition to the originals there is a great cover of Van Morrison's Days Like This on which Annekei duets with Will Downing. Ritenour did a superb production job and got the most amazing sound; nice, deep bass, drums that snap, and all the other great sounding instruments leave plenty of space for Annekei's sweet voice.

2. Leslie Mendelson - Swan Feathers

Listen to I Know You Better Than That

Worth the Wait: It took Rykodisc over a year to release this second album by one of New York’s most talented singer-songwriters. This record features the best songwriting, vocals, performance and production you might hope to find. This is one of those rare albums that doesn’t have a bad track on it. Leslie's real forte is writing memorable melodies. In particular the song above, Easy Love, Hit the Spot, and Turn It Over will embed themselves in your head after just a listen or two. The closing song, Goodnight, has such a great soft melody, it sounds like Paul McCartney might have written it, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense. Leslie's longtime friend James Maddock plays the great sounding guitar on this album, Randy Brecker guests on sax. The understated production by Joel Dorn lets each song sound its best.

3. Susan Enan - Plainsong

Listen to Bring On the Wonder

From England to NYC By Way of Northern Ireland: Susan Enan is another great Rockwood find. She hails from England but more recently has called Northern Ireland and New York City home. In 2007, Susan moved back to England to make this, her first full-length album. Susan is as fine a singer-songwriter as they come, and her songs have never sounded better than they do on Plainsong. This was recorded in five different countries, according to her website, with the majority of it recorded at Susan's home studio in Brooklyn.

Susan produced the record herself with an uncluttered production style that leaves plenty of breathing room for her gorgeous voice; all the instruments were recorded with amazing sound quality. This is really a special record because all ten songs are wonderful; there's not a clinker in the bunch. The CD package has beautiful photography, graphics, and quality of materials like what you would expect a major label to use for one of their top artists. But Susan self-released Plainsong, and you can order it from her website. Do it today.

4. Trashcan Sinatras - In the Music

Listen to In the Music

Scotland's Best Export: I've been listening to Scottish singer-songwriter Eddi Reader for many years. In 2003 she recorded a tribute album to Robert Burns, Scottish poet and songwriter (Auld Lang Syne) who lived in the 1700's. All the songs on the tribute album were by Burns except for one. Eddi explained that the premise of including this song was that it represented how the spirit of Burns comes down through the generations to inspire young songwriters. This song she included was called Wild Mountainside, an incredibly beautifully song that was written by her brother, Frank Reader.

Frank is a founding member of the Trashcan Sinatras. Over their 24 year career they have produced five brilliant albums of which In The Music is the latest. That's how I found my way to the Trashcan Sinatras. With no American airplay, at least not in Philadelphia, I was happily surprised to find Philadelphia's Tin Angel completely packed, the two times I've seen them there. The main thing to know about this group is that they write great songs and their records are characterized by lush ear-friendly vocals combined with an instrumental sound that works perfectly with the material.

All the songs on In the Music were written by the Trashcan Sinatras. The song Prisons features guest vocalist Carly Simon; there is also an excellent video. The album was produced by Andy Chase who may be best known for being a singer, songwriter, and musician in the band Ivy with his wife Dominique Durand and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne. This is an album without a bad track on it. Listening to In the Music is a total delight from start to finish. Not all of their albums have been released in the U.S., but American buyers are in for a treat this time. The U.S. release of In the Music comes with a bonus live disc; if you download, Amazon offers the whole package for $8.99. This could be the best nine bucks you spend on music this year.

5. James Maddock - Sunrise on Avenue C

Listen to When the Sun's Out

Rockin' the Rockwood: James Maddock's first music career came with the major label release in 1999 of his first album under the band name Wood. Maddock moved to New York City from his native England some years ago. He has since become a fixture at Rockwood Music Hall--either backing Leslie Mendelson with his vocals and his exquisite acoustic lead guitar, or he’s tearing the place up with his band doing the songs that you can now hear on Sunrise on Avenue C. The anthemic energy and exuberant abandon of When The Sun's Out may remind you of early Springsteen. After the break when he comes back in softly to start the next verse over piano it sounds like something off Born to Run.

The album opens with Chance which also has that anthemic quality. Maddock's softer side sounds great on When You Go Quiet and on the title track. Dumbed Down is a fun song with a memorable melody that features a nice electric piano part played by Leslie Mendelson (returning the favor), and the lyrics are about the joys of watching television. The album ends on a beautiful note with the song aptly titled Beautiful. Maddock wrote all the songs on Sunrise on Avenue C, Clark Gayton guested on trombone, and the whole affair was produced by Malcolm Burn. A listen to this record will give you an idea why the Rockwood is always packed whenever he plays.

6. John Fogerty - The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again

Listen to Garden Party feat. Don Henley & Timothy B. Schmidt

An American Icon: I've been listening to John Fogerty ever since one summer day in 1968 when I first heard Suzie-Q by Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio. Fogerty’s run with Creedence was second only to the Beatles in terms of the number of hit singles and albums he had within a five-year period. He has slowed down somewhat in his solo career, but he is still a huge talent and an American icon. After Creedence, Fogerty's first solo project was an album called The Blue Ridge Rangers on which he did nothing but covers of some of his favorite country songs.

Now, 35 years later, Fogerty has revisited the concept and recorded The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again. This time he invited some of his favorite musicians to play with him, plus guest vocals by Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmidt of the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen. Greg Leisz played some really amazing pedal steel guitar on nearly every track, and his excellence was matched song for song by Jason Mowery on fiddle. Fogerty more than holds his own with some nice country style guitar leads. One thing is certain, Fogerty was having the time of his life making this record, and you can partake in the fun just by listening.

7. Rosanne Cash - The List

Listen to I'm Movin' On

Can't-Miss Project: When Rosanne Cash was a teenager, her dad Johnny Cash grew concerned at her lack of knowledge of country music, so he gave her a list of the 100 most essential songs. Rosanne says she was old enough at the time not to throw the list away and she saved it. The list (which Rosanne now describes as the 100 most essential songs of American music) became the basis for her latest album, with all the songs selected from the list. With a great voice like Rosanne's together with some of the best-ever American songwriting, superb production and guitar work by husband John Leventhal, plus some of New York's best musicians, you've got a can't miss project. There are even famous guests like Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen. Rosanne also sings "Girl from the North Country," a song her dad sang as a duet with Bob Dylan on "Nashville Skyline."

8. Kristina Train - Spilt Milk

Listen to Don't Beg For Love

An Enormous Talent: Dave from Direct Current Music and I saw Kristina Train last year at the Living Room and we were blown away by her enormous talent. Kristina was under contract to Blue Note Records at the time but it took until this fall for Spilt Milk, her debut album, to be released. This is a tremendous record; all the songs are originals, mostly written by the team of Kristina, producer Jimmy Hogarth, and arranger E G White. The arrangements are superb, simple, and open when they need to be, but White doesn't hesitate to dress up the songs with strings or break out the horn section to maximum effect.

Which brings me to the matter of Kristina's voice. At times she has a soft, sultry, and southern side to her singing, which works perfectly with the material, and reflects her Georgia upbringing. When she hits the high notes, she has a strength in her voice that is very reminiscent of Dusty Springfield, especially on It's Over Now. Actually, Dusty moments are all over this record; it sounds to me like this is an album that Dusty might have made at this point in time, had she lived. Kristina also plays the violin on Spilt Milk, and she wrote all the string arrangements. This is a solid album of great songs, well sung, played, arranged, and produced. What more could you want.

9. Anuhea - Anuhea

Listen to Here I Go Again

Cool Soul/Pop From Hawaii: It's an unusual thing when an album hits you straight out of the blue and it's actually good; it's extra special when such a record has as high a batting average as this one does. Anuhea was born Rylee Anuheake'alaokalokelani Jenkins on the island of Maui, and she wrote or co-wrote all the songs on this, her debut album. Many of the tracks are straight ahead soul/pop like the above song. She set two of them to a bumpin' reggae beat. Three more have an ear friendly mix of acoustic guitar and keyboards, like the beautifully written I Just Want You Around. There's a track called Barista by Day which might hold some clue to her day job. Her voice is appealingly soulful; the closest comparison would be Joss Stone, but I think Anuhea has better material and her vocals sound natural and effortless.

10. Ruthie Foster - The Truth According to Ruthie Foster

Listen to I Really Love You

I Didn't Know They Still Made Records Like This: Sounding like a cross between Bonnie Raitt and Shemekia Copeland (the name Aretha also comes to mind), Ruthie Foster has made a great blues album that could just as easily pass for a singer-songwriter record. In addition to writing half the songs, Ruthie played both electric and acoustic guitars, and the Wurlitzer electric piano. Robben Ford guests on electric guitar. There's some great sounding slow blues, some full-on blues, some acoustic blues, and even some blues with a reggae beat (play song above). With great songs mixing blues and rock with Ruthie’s super soulful vocals, and excellent musicianship at every position, the awesome old school production may leave you thinking 'I didn’t know they still made records like this.'

I can never stop at just ten, so here's five more.

11. Elizabeth and the Catapult - Taller Children

Listen to Right Next to You

Quirky Charm: After several years of playing New York clubs like Rockwood Music Hall, The Living Room, and Joe's Pub, and often playing to capacity crowds, Elizabeth and the Catapult got their big break and signed with Verve Forecast. Taller Children is their major label debut. The album begins with Momma's Boy which has all the quirky charm that their New York faithful have come to know and love (if you want a girl to be your mother, go find another, go find another one). All the songs on Taller Children are originals and feature the signature songwriting of Elizabeth Ziman and band, as well as Elizabeth's appealing voice. Right Next to You and Golden Ink are especially beautiful and memorable songs. Speaking of memorable, I saw these guys play Joe's Pub on Halloween last year and they all came out in costumes from the movie A Clockwork Orange; that's a performance I'll not soon forget.

12. Mindy Smith - Stupid Love

Listen to What Went Wrong

Heartbreak Hotel: Someone must have really stomped on Mindy Smith's heart. Bad. Stupid Love is Mindy's fourth album and every song on it seems to deal with the aftermath of a relationship gone bad. Mindy has a great voice that sounds extra good set against the musical arrangements that characterize all of her albums. On the first song, What Went Wrong, the vocal and the music sounds happy enough to disguise the subject matter unless you are paying attention to the lyrics. Many a great song has been inspired by heartbreak, just as Joni Mitchell. Mindy closes the album with three great songs that are universal enough to transcend her personal situation. All the rest of the tracks detail the sorrow and what comes after. Mindy wrote or co-wrote all the songs and she also produced the record.

Mindy sang a nice duet with Vince Gill on True Love of Mine; she also had guest vocal help from Susan Ashton, Amy Grant, Madi Diaz, Leigh Nash, and Kate York. Mindy's last album, My Holiday, is one of the best records I've ever heard. It's the quality of her originals that take this set way beyond the level of a great Christmas album. The breakup that fueled Stupid Love prevents the songwriting from reaching the heights of her last, but I want to mention the iTunes bonus track which lifts the mood to conclude the album very nicely; it's a super well done cover of Fleetwood Mac's Little Lies.

13. Malene Mortensen - Date With a Dream

Listen to All I Want

Quality Jazz/Pop From Denmark: Malene Mortensen is a Danish singer-songwriter who works with some of Denmark's best jazz musicians on this, her debut album. Six of the album's eleven tracks are originals, co-written by Malene and her band. The rest are covers like the Joni Mitchell song above; some are standards like At Last and Take Five in which you get to hear the lyrics to this famous instrumental. Malene has a very appealing voice; she doesn't sound like anyone else in particular but at times she reminds me of Annekei (also Danish), at other times Chrissi Poland, and at still other times, Holly Palmer. These are three singers I hold in high regard, so this is high praise indeed. The music on Date With A Dream is quality slow piano jazz with vocals. I am in debt to my friend Lee in the U.K. for sending this.

14. Melody Gardot - My One & Only Thrill

Listen to Baby I'm a Fool

Have Soundtrack, Need Movie: All the glossy glamour and elegant strings on Melody Gardot’s major label debut marks a significant change of direction from the simple, direct, and beautiful songwriting that made her first album, Worrisome Heart, so utterly compelling. There is a trace of her earlier songwriting here; the new album opens with Baby I'm a Fool which she's been doing in her live set for the past several years. Melody has a way with words: Baby I'm a fool who thinks it's cool to fall in love, and it's all wrapped up in a pretty melody. I can't think of anyone I'd rather hear sing to me in French, and Melody does so beautifully on Les Etoile.

The majority of the tracks on this record are smoky bar, clinking glass, slow jazz/pop that sounds like it might be a soundtrack for a film noir, all ready for someone to make the movie. The album ends with maybe the most unusual version of Over the Rainbow that you'll ever hear. There's a samba beat, trumpet, and Melody takes some liberties with the melody. Long-time listeners may lament that star producer Larry Klein relegated Melody’s world-class jazz band to the sidelines. Universal has spent the last two years making Melody a star in England and Europe. Melody describes herself as an expatriate living in Paris. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving Philly local.

15. Ann Courtney & the Late Bloomers - Crocodile

Listen to Don't Be a Fading Bruise

Ann Courtney is the Rockwood bartender who also fronts a really cool band. The Late Bloomers may look like your average neighborhood bar band but their musicianship is way above average. Ann writes deep multilayered songs that reveal their charms gradually as you get to know them. They rock with a fine edge. Ann plays electric guitar with a smoldering slow burn that underscores the intensity of the songs. ACLB have been around for a long time and this is their very long-awaited first full-length record, and one not to be missed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chrissi Poland Update - New Videos and a Really Big Show

Next week Chrissi makes her debut at New York City's famed Metropolitan Room, Wednesday October 21st at 7:30pm. If you are anywhere in the NYC area, make it a point to come out to this show. Come hear Chrissi and her amazing band do songs from her forthcoming album Songs From the Concrete; Chrissi, songs, and band are all road tested and at the top of their game. This is big - advance promo copies of Songs From the Concrete will be available at the show.

Meanwhile, check out two new live videos from Chrissi's most recent show at New York's City Winery. Enjoy.

"Yours Is the Love", Live at City Winery, 9/21/09.

'Angel Weep For Me", Live at City Winery, 9/21/09.

Click here for a preview of Songs From the Concrete, Chrissi's debut album, due out soon.

Chrissi Poland's myspace.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Courtney Jaye - "Don't Tell a Girl"

Here's a very cool video for Courtney Jaye's "Don't Tell a Girl" from her forthcoming full length CD, The Exotic Sounds of Courtney Jaye, due on iTunes October 13th.

I already love this song from a preview EP that Courtney released last year. I'm looking forward to catching Courtney at Next Big Nashville this week. More soon.

Courtney Jaye's myspace.
Courtney Jaye's website.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Rosanne Cash - The List (2009)

Rosanne Cash has made a delightful new record that tributes her dad with a collection of songs selected from a list that Johnny gave her when she was eighteen; a list of the 100 essential country songs that he felt she needed to know. The Listcomes out Tuesday on Manhattan Records.

Listen to "I'm Movin' On"

The combination of a great voice and great songs is a can't-miss proposition, but in this case Roseanne's voice is like silk, and the songs are all gems that cover a wide range of styles, every one loaded with history and context. The production by Rosanne's husband and longtime producer/musician John Leventhal is absolutely perfect for the material start to finish, and the musicianship is likewise stellar throughout. Leventhal's guitar work especially makes a number of songs sound extra cool, like on these first two preview tracks.

Listen to "Take These Chains From My Heart"

In addition to some of New York's best session musicians, The List features some guest vocalists of note, like Bruce Springsteen who sings with Rosanne on "Sea of Heartbreak", the Don Gibson classic written by Hal David & Paul Hampton. Elvis Costello sings on Guy Mitchell's "Heartaches by the Number", written by Harlan Howard. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Rufus Wainwright also sing with Rosanne on The List..

Rosanne describes the list as being so wide ranging stylistically and historically that it's more like the essential songs of American music, not just country. Rosanne includes the folk standard "500 Miles" here in a beautiful version. And while the list did not include songs written by her dad, it does include Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country" the duet that Johnny sang with Dylan on Nashville Skyline.

Listen to "Girl From the North Country"

Rosanne Cash records are usually as notable for her songwriting as for her singing and the excellent production, but as a followup to her last record Black Cadillac which was a beautiful and intense song cycle about the loss of her mother, father, and step-mother, The List could not be a more welcome or more well done next chapter in Rosanne's career.

Rosanne Cash website.

P.S. Another superbly sung and produced album of old school country covers was released by Martina McBride (who also produced it) in 2005 and stands as one of the best country records I've ever heard. And while the production styles are a little different, I'd consider both Timeless and The Listas among the best such recordings you're likely to ever hear.

Martina McBride - Timeless (2005)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Next Big Nashville - Next Week

Looking forward to checking out lots of new music next week at Next Big Nashville, a festival sort of like SXSW on a slightly smaller scale, 12 venues and 140 artists over four days.

It's my first time to go to Music City and I'm excited; will post from the festival with daily photos. Here's the artist list. If you're anywhere in that part of the world, come on down!

Next Big Nashville website.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Polly & the Billets Doux - "Head of Steam"

Polly & the Billets Doux is a cool new band from the UK with a cool video for this song, "Head of Steam" which is the title track from their debut EP, released in 2008 and now out of print. Enjoy.

Polly & the Billets Doux have just released their debut full length album, Fiction, Half Truths and Downright Lies in the U.K., available worldwide through Amazon UK.

Polly & the Billets Doux website.
Polly & the Billets Doux myspace.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Wallis Bird - New Video, "To My Bones"

Wallis Bird is one of the happy discoveries from this year's SXSW, a singer, songwriter, and musician from Ireland who matches the musicality of her songs with an uncommon level of energy. She sang "To My Bones" in Austin and it left me feeling that I had just heard maybe the most optimistic and exuberant song ever. It's included in her new album, New Boots,which has just been released in Ireland with releases in other countries planned soon. Enjoy the video, this is an artist with enormous potential.

Wallis Bird's myspace.
Wallis Bird's website.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Doctor Rosen Rosen Remix - Lily Allen's It's Not Me, It's You (2009)

Lily Allen - It's Not Me It's...Dr. Rosen Rosen (Remix)

Dr. Rosen Rosen, a remixer from Los Angeles, has stretched the envelope of what we know as remixing with a total remake of Lily Allen's lastest release, It's Not Me, It's You.He has taken her vocal tracks, discarded the rest of the music and written, recorded, and produced new backing tracks for Lily's vocals and accomplished the dramatic and unlikely result of producing an album that is both different from the original and totally wonderful. And his remix album is available for free download right now, right here.

Listen to "Never Gonna Happen (original version)"

Listen to "Never Gonna Happen (Dr. Rosen Rosen Rx)"

Check out the above comparison of the original and the Dr. Rosen Rosen remix of "Never Gonna Happen" while you read Dr. Rosen Rosen's own description of this project from his website.

I saw Lily Allen for the first time in 2006 while on tour in Iceland. We didn't actually meet face to face and I didn't even catch her name; my introduction was seeing her video for Smile in a crappy hotel room. A few days later I was strolling around a gigantic Virgin Record store in London, when I saw a poster of her and the name... Lily Allen. I snagged her debut record and went home to New York a fan.

Fast forward to 3 years later: Lily Allen is a bonefied pop-star and is releasing her second album "It's Not Me, It's You." I reach out to her US record label to see if they were commisioning any remixes... no dice. Lily was, however, releasing all of the parts to all of the songs on the album so anyone could remix them. Brilliant. I knew I had to remix the whole album.

One thing I really like about Lily Allen is her knack for pairing bouncy music with not-so-bouncy lyrics. My goal in remixing her entire record was to see what would happen if I placed Lily's voice and lyrics into new musical landscapes that were a complete departure from the original recordings. As most of the original album "It's Not Me, It's You" is upbeat (thanks to Greg Kurstin's awesome production) my remixed version "It's Not Me, It's Doctor Rosen Rosen" takes on a darker/dreamier tone. I mixed a lot of organic sounds (pianos, strings, glockenspiel, horns) with dreamy synths, deep basses, and big drums to create a totally new record. I produced, composed, and mixed all of the music you hear. The only original parts I used were Lily's vocal tracks.

I really enjoyed making this and I hope you enjoy listening.

Doctor Rosen Rosen

Here's another A/B comparison that really shows the vivid musical imagination that Dr. Rosen Rosen brings to this project.

Listen to "Not Fair (original version)"

Listen to "Not Fair (Dr. Rosen Rosen Rx)"

The opening riff of the "Not Fair" remix sounds a lot like Imogen Heap's "I Am In Love With You" from Speak for Yourself,a sound which totally works in this new context. The original version of "Not Fair" seemed to be a somewhat calculated retread of Lily's complaints about partners' sexual inadequacies, but in the Dr. Rosen Rosen remix, these same complaints seem to regain the cheeky appeal that made the first album a delight but might otherwise seem a bit contrived after a couple of years in the celebrity/tabloid limelight. Even more interesting is the inclusion by Dr. Rosen Rosen of an interview clip with Lily where she discusses the guy who the song is about. Now that's some inspired remixing.

Perhaps the biggest improvement in the remix is the song "Fuck You". The original struck me as more of a precious and somewhat gratuitous use of the f-word with a sing-songy chorus that seemed to undercut it's own attempt at shock value. The remix totally remakes the song and even changes the emphasis of the vocal to clearly make the point that the subject of the song is so despicable that he/she totally deserves the full measure that this song is dishing out, it totally makes the chorus seem more justified and less a lyrical gimmick.

Overall the new music in the Dr. Rosen Rosen remix is beautifully conceived and is perfectly recorded and produced. The energy level is a bit lower than the original, which is a real interesting choice. It'll take some time to really discern all the nuances of the Dr. Rosen Rosen version, but that'll be a very rewarding trip. This is a musical achievement of the highest order. Go Doctor!

Dr. Rosen Rosen's myspace.
Dr. Rosen Rosen's website.
Lily Allen's myspace.
Lily Allen's website.