Derek Richardson's best of 2004 (so far)
- ...and some upcoming releases of interest for the second half of the year.
The best of the year so far, and what to look forward to
by Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, July 29, 2004
If the music that has been released since January is any indication, we
might yet look back at 2004 as a very good year.
True, even the most compelling new pop albums -- such as i, from the
Magnetic Fields (which you read about here) and Wilco's A Ghost Is Born, or
Kings of Convenience's beguiling Riot on an Empty Street and Badly Drawn
Boy's One Plus One Is One, both new in stores this week -- offer little
more than temporary relief from the dispiriting realities of war,
homelessness and unaffordable health care.
And, indeed, music alone can't slay what resurgent folk troubadour Donovan
identifies as the natural enemy of bohemianism, the Janus-headed monster of
hypocrisy and greed. But deft lyrics and creatively organized instrumental
sound can tweak our perspective, uncloud our vision and refresh our
resources of wisdom and compassion. Looking for those qualities (while
granting that channeling anger, frustration or sexual energy into beats,
rhymes and crunching guitar chords produces a lot of great pop that will
not get due recognition here) leads me to this (approximately) midyear
roundup of CDs that should not escape your attention, plus a preview of
promising releases to watch for in the coming months.
James Talley, Journey (Cimarron). Many songs have been written in the wake
of Sept. 11, but few manifest the empathy and understanding of Talley's "I
Saw the Buildings," a lucid and heartbreaking 10-minute epic that the
Nashville veteran recorded live in Italy in 2002, along with four other
previously unreleased songs and nine of his classic outlaw-country
The Websters and Scott Nygaard, Ten Thousand Miles (Lot of Rabbits
Records). Known to Northern California audiences as lead singer with the
New Orleans-influenced eclectic dance band Mumbo Gumbo, Chris Webster joins
her operatically trained sister Cassie and acoustic guitarist Scott Nygaard
(former member of bluegrass ace Tim O'Brien's band) for the most gorgeous
contemporary roots-folk album this side of Gillian Welch.
Sam Phillips, A Boot and a Shoe (Nonesuch). Having settled on a basically
acoustic folk-swing sound that suits her dry singing style, Phillips comes
up with the wittiest and most poignant lyrics of her career, from "Help is
coming / Help is coming / One day late / One day late" to "Give up the
ground under your feet / Hold on to nothing for good / Turn and run at the
mean dogs chasing you / Stand alone and misunderstood."
Jim White, Drill a Hole in that Substrate and Tell Me What You See (Luaka
Bop). The eccentric Floridian follows up 1997's Wrong-Eyed Jesus and 2001's
No Such Place with more spooky Southern short stories, upping the sonic
intrigue with production help from Joe Henry and Tucker Martine and guest
appearances by Aimee Mann, Mary Gauthier, M. Ward, the Sadies, Barenaked
Ladies, Oh Susanna and others.
Devendra Banhart, Rejoicing in the Hands (Young God Records). By this time
next year, bearded bard Banhart might well be gracing the covers of major
music magazines, spearheading an acid-folk revival marked by John
Fahey-influenced acoustic guitar picking, psychedelic imagery and vocal
styles owing to Donovan, Nick Drake and Tiny Tim. Thank him for bringing
attention to and perhaps inspiring a new album from the long-lost Vashti
Bunyan. See also Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop);
CocoRosie, La Maison de Mon Reve (Touch & Go); and Animal Collective, Sung
Tongs (Fat Cat Records).
Marilyn Crispell Trio, Storyteller (ECM). Since signing to ECM in 1997,
pianist Crispell has toned down, or at least slowed down, her Cecil
Taylor-inspired abstractions, revealing the stark lyricism of her tautly
conceived melodies and harmonies. With bassist Mark Helias and drummer Paul
Motian, she has recorded another radiant, multifaceted album that sets the
standard for contemplative modern-jazz piano trios in the new millennium.
Nels Cline and Vinny Golia, The Entire Time (Nine Winds). Now that he's the
new guitarist in Wilco, Nels Cline may have less time for his jazz-improv
experiments, but this duo session with multi-woodwind master and L.A.
avant-garde mentor Vinny Golia will give "outside" music fans plenty to
chew on (and reason to check out Cline's relatively underground work on the
Cryptogramophone and Nine Winds labels). It offers generous amounts of
Cline's electric-guitar wizardry and effects, plus lots of his seldom-heard
acoustic steel- and nylon-string plucking, all in dazzling interplay with
Golia's flutes, saxophones, clarinets and Asian reeds.
Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith: Yo Miles, Sky Garden (Cuneiform). A few
other bands (Bitches Brew, Mushroom, Children on the Corner) are mining the
jazz-funk legacy of Miles Davis' revolutionary electric period, but
guitarist Kaiser and trumpeter Smith have deciphered the secret pan-African
code and unleashed its mysteries in Yo Miles! Their second studio recording
(downloads of live shows are available to savvy Web surfers) features an
awesome lineup with bassist Michael Manring, drummer Steve Smith,
keyboardist Tom Coster, saxophonists Greg Osby and John Tchicai, guitarists
Chris Muir and Mike Keneally, percussionist Karl Perazzo and special guests
Zakir Hussain, Dave Creamer and the Rova Saxophone Quartet.
Tin Hat Trio, Book of Silk (Ropeadope). The bicoastal instrumental
threesome of Mark Orton (guitar, Dobro, banjo), Carla Kihlstedt (violin,
viola) and Rob Burger (accordion, piano, pump organ, harmonica, marxophone)
effectively becomes a quintet with the inclusion of harpist Zeena Parkins
and tuba player Bryan Smith. As a virtual chamber orchestra, Tin Hat makes
its most gorgeous, heartrending music to date, born of tragedy and resolved
in global harmonies and cadences.
Steve Earle, The Revolution Starts ... Now (Artemis). The song titles
("Rich Man's War," "F the CC," "The Revolution Starts Now") and the country
rocker's determination to get the CD out before the presidential election
prove that the literate and angry Earle certainly wasn't cowed by the
reactionaries' reaction to 2002's Jerusalem and "John Walker's Blues."
Donovan, Beat Café (Appleseed Recordings). The unrepentant flower-power
bohemian has barely changed his tune on his first album in eight years.
Accompanied by bassist Danny Thompson, drummer Jim Keltner and
producer/keyboardist John Chelew, he couches a few cringe-worthy platitudes
in a snappy sound that's charmingly unafraid to be cool.
Mike Watt, The Secondman's Middle Stand (Columbia Red/Ink). The former
Minutemen and fIREHOSE bassist makes up for going seven years without a new
album with a punk opera featuring organist Pete Mazich, drummer Jerry
Trebotic and guest vocalist Petra Haden.
Bill Frisell, Unspeakable (Nonesuch). The soft-spoken but musically
unstoppable guitarist collaborates with producer Hal Willner on an
ambitious project that brings in bassist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny
Wollesen, percussionist Don Alias, string players Jenny Scheinman, Eyvind
Kang and Hank Roberts and horn players Steven Bernstein, Curtis Fowlkes and
Dan Bern & the IJBC, My Country II (Messenger). As with Steve Earle, this
populist troubadour has fashioned his new recording as a political campaign
weapon; such songs as "President," "Tyranny," "Ostrich Town" and "Torn
Flag" lead up to his uncouched conclusion that "Bush Must Be Defeated."
Judy Collins, Judy Collins Sings Leonard Cohen: Democracy (Elektra/Rhino).
Intended as a tribute to the influential Canadian Zen Buddhist song poet as
his 70th birthday looms, the veteran folk songbird adds three new
recordings -- "Democracy," "A Thousand Kisses Deep" and "Night Comes On" --
to her career-spanning catalog of Cohen covers. A new Leonard Cohen album,
Dear Heather, is reportedly due Sept. 28.
Patricia Barber, A Fortnight in Frontenac (Blue Note). Recorded at live
concerts in France, the triple-threat pianist/composer/singer and her
loose-limbed but tightly communicative band (guitarist Neal Alger, bassist
Michael Arnopol and drummer Eric Montzka) dazzle audiences with sly
originals that range from cultural commentary ("Whiteworld") to
interpersonal agonies ("Pieces"), plus singular cover versions ("Norwegian
Wood," "Call Me") at a musical intersection where Joni Mitchell, Laurie
Anderson and Bill Evans meet.
Sally Timms, In the World of Him (Touch & Go). The longtime Mekons vocalist
(the Dusty Springfield of political country punk) finally follows up her
dreamy 1999 release Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos.
Devendra Banhart, Nino Rojo (Young God Records). Recorded during the same
sessions as Rejoicing in the Hands, the sequel completes a cryptic
fairy-tale song cycle that only Banhart truly understands.
Don Byron, Ivey Divey (Blue Note). Joined by pianist Jason Moran and
drummer Jack DeJohnette, with appearances by bassist Lonnie Plaxico and
trumpeter Ralph Alessi, the genre-bending jazz/klezmer clarinetist (and
tenor saxophonist here) provides the missing links between "I Want to Be
Happy," "Abie the Fishman" and "In a Silent Way."