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Top 20 Albums of 2009

Posted by: on Dec 9, 2009 | Comments (1)

1. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino)

2. The-Dream – Love vs. Money (Def Jam)

3. K’naan – Troubadour (A&M / Octone)

4. Nellie McKay – Normal as Blueberry Pie (Verve)

5. Thorns of Life – Live at 924 Gilman (Torrent)

6. Sunn o))) – Monoliths and Dimensions (Southern Lord)

7. Tyondai Braxton – Central Market (Warp)

8. Nomo – Invisible Cities (Ubiquity)

9. P.O.S. – Never Better (Rhymesayers)

10. Litany for the Whale – Dolores (Molsook / PMM)

11. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp)

12. Superchunk – Crossed Wires (Merge)

13. Not to Reason Why – Would You Hug Fire? (Pandacide / 1912)

14. Vijay Iyer Trio – Historicity (ACT)

15. Passion Pit – Manners (Frenchkiss / Columbia)

16. Adam Theis & the Jazz Mafia – Brass, Bows & Beats (Jazz Mafia)

17. Souls of Mischief – Montezuma’s Revenge (Heiro)

18. The Full Blast – Black Hole (Atavistic)

19. Finale – T.I.M.E. (River City)

20. Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown (Reprise)

Live Review: Outside Lands Festival – Day Two

Posted by: on Aug 27, 2008 | Comments (4)

I run into a friend of mine who is working, in some capacity or another, at the Crowdfire tent. Most of the photos I see on the screens around the park seem taken by the official Crowdfire photographers and not, as the concept goes, by fans who feel like wasting their time in front of a computer screen by uploading photos inside a big tent. I ask him what the Crowdfire tent is all about.

“It’s really hot in there,” he says simply, “and it smells like weed.”

 

Boots Riley, from the Coup, doesn’t seem to have any more of a handle on the Crowdfire idea either.

“I guess there’s this thing where you film a song on your. . . your phone, or something?” he says to the crowd. “And then you go and. . . upload it in that tent?” The genius of it is that he’s not phrasing his sentences in question form because he’s unclear on how the process works. It’s because he’s clearly asking why anyone would want to do such a stupid thing in the first place.

I interviewed Boots Riley in 2006, shortly after the Coup’s tour bus crashed one week into a nationwide tour. While the bus was sideways on the side of the freeway, everyone scrambled out just in time to watch the bus—and everything on it—become engulfed in flames. Riley was still audibly shaken by the experience, but his personal resolve was strong as ever.

“Different members of the band are like, ‘Well, you know, we survived for a reason.’ This and that. But I have always felt a reason for my life,” he told me, determinedly, “and I’ve searched to make a reason for my life when I didn’t know what it was.”

That’s exactly how Riley is on stage. He’s here for a reason, and he knows it, and he’s not about to let the audience forget that. Moving around the stage using every part of his body but his feet, in a green military shirt with “Revolution Rock” on the back, he even needs to ask for a longer mic cord at one point.

Riley and Silk-E command the live band through a solid set of mostly new songs. “Ride the Fence” goes into a barreling breakdown, and “The Shipment” has the musicians in full-on Band of Gypsys mode. “Ijuswannalayaroundalldayinbedwithyou” makes for a nice breather, and Silk-E delivers a solo song, “Do You Give Her What I Got,” showcasing her Aretha-like vocals.

It around this point that I notice that the foam covering on the speaker, two feet in front of my face, is flapping off of the cabinet with each heavy bass note. My ears are already shot from years of this, but a rare burst of responsibility sets in. Might be a good idea to move.

 

The last time I saw the Liars was at the Greek Theater in 2006. It was horrible. Just horrible. One of the most grating things I’ve ever sat through.

I have friends who swear by them, though, and I’m willing to give them another shot. They’re on the Panhandle Stage—the smallest stage at Outside Lands—and they’ve got a huge crowd. They seem less on heroin than they did two years ago, which is good.

The most unlikely trend in indie rock: the Second Drummer Playing Not Exactly In Rhythm.

“That song was called Alcatraz and There’s No Place Like Home!” says a smiling Angus Andrew. I’m not sure if it’s a continuation of the song title, but he also says something about it being a beautiful night, which, at three in the afternoon, is sort of strange.

I think about a Gang Gang Dance album that I used to have, and make my way to the Lupe Fiasco stage, which has already amassed a huge throng.

 

By rights, no one in a goddamned Dodgers cap should be allowed to stand in front of a San Francisco crowd and succeed in getting them hyped. But Lupe Fiasco’s guitarist does just that. Over and over. For ten minutes or so.

You know it’s a hip-hop show when nothing is happening on stage for way too long, there’s some guy telling you to make some noise even though you just did a few minutes ago, and the star doesn’t come out to the stage even remotely on time. Of all the hip-hop acts at Outside Lands, Lupe Fiasco is the only one who does this. I stand there, staring into space, wondering why I still put up with this kind of stuff.

I didn’t really understand the fascination with Lupe Fiasco when he put out Food & Liquor. Maybe it’s because back here in the Bay Area, we already had the Pack, who are of a much more sensible age group to be wearing neon and rapping about skateboards. The production is alright and all, and “Kick Push” is great, but really—“hip hop’s whiz kid”?

It was earlier this year when I was interviewing DJ Ignite for an article on Santa Rosa’s Latino hip hop scene that I changed my tune on Lupe Fiasco. “That song, ‘Hip Hop Saved My Life,’ that’s my favorite song right now,” he told me. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I sought it out and lo and behold, he’s right. It’s a great song.

Lupe Fiasco comes out late but makes quick amends by playing “Kick Push” and “Hip Hop Saved My Life” right off the bat. Dude is smooth as butter. Opening tours for Kanye West will do that to you, I guess. The crowd is in the palm of his hand, and I haven’t seen so many arms windshield-wipering in unison since the 1900s.

When he finishes his set, the P.A. speakers go back to playing the Grateful Dead.

 

“With all of the money and influence in Washington,” muses Nellie McKay on the Panhandle stage, “it’s a miracle we even have a pseudo-democracy left.”

Last night, we’d gotten the text message from Barack Obama announcing that Joe Biden would be his running mate. And this morning, we’d watched the speech in Springfield, cringing at each blunder by both Obama and Biden. Obama called Biden “the next President. . . the next Vice President of the United States of America!” while Biden kept blowing it, calling Obama “Barack America” and using the word “literally” way too many times.

I’ve been pretty headstrong during this election season. I don’t care how close the media wants to paint this election. There is no way that McCain can possibly win. Even disregarding his asinine policies, he’s still a wooden, blobby multimillionaire who abandoned his wife after she got in a car accident to have an affair and marry a pill-popping, thieving beer heiress. Fuck that guy. He’s a loser.

But watching the speech in Springfield, my faith started to lapse. Especially when I noticed the campaign sign: “Obama Biden.” From a psychological standpoint, it doesn’t look good if your brain factors in an “S,” an “N,” and an “La.” When Biden called this campaign “literally incredible,” I fell apart inside.

The Democratic Party’s biggest obstacle, in my opinion, is its own self-doubt. For some reason, Democrats can’t just come right out and declare themselves the inevitable winners, even though according to all logic, the results of the November election are a totally foregone conclusion. Instead, they have to look at polls and wring their hands and worry about what Hilary supporters are thinking and what black America is thinking and what people in church are thinking.

For all of his blunders, Biden seems to have that extra needed boost of confidence. He also seems like he might make a bad cop to Obama’s good cop when it comes to attacking McCain, which is such a sensible and easy thing to do. In fact, if we care at all about the future of the world, we should all be attacking McCain as often and as gleefully as we can.

I already reviewed Nellie McKay’s show in Petaluma just five days earlier, and you can read it here. But standing in the crowd, watching people fall in love with McKay for the first time, is like seeing it through their eyes. All the zingers that never fail bring a new set of smiles to my face, and her cover of “Vote for Mr. Rhythm” leads into the brightest spot of political hope of the day.

“A lot of people say McCain is too old,” she reports to the crowd. “But it’s not that McCain is too old. It’s that his policies are FUCKED UP.”

 

Next up is the Walkmen, who I’ve never seen before but who I’ve loved since their impeccable 2004 album, Bows + Arrows. This week, they’re at the top of the Pitchfork ‘Best New Music’ list, for what that’s worth—after all, every single record store has a used, discarded copy of Pitchfork’s #1 album of 2006, The Knife’s Silent Shout, which is a totally faceless pile of boredom that almost single-handedly destroyed Pitchfork’s reputation overnight.

The Walkmen’s new album is called You & Me, and after listening to it a few times, I’m not that into it. It’s wimpy, and too ruminative, and not in the good way that “No Christmas While I’m Talking” is ruminative. I made a tape of it for the car, and skipping over a few songs to conserve space on the 45-minute cassette wasn’t exactly a nail-biting decision to make.

But the Walkmen take the stage and right off the bat, the wimpiness works on me. I’m transfixed. They open with a slow song, just guitar and singing, and it’s an irresistible invitation into their world. When the next song comes in and the band fills out the sound, it’s like heaven. They’re the very definition of a unique aesthetic, playing the same vintage instruments as the Monkees—Vox bass, Gretsch drums—but sounding unlike any other band on Earth.

They play almost all songs from You & Me, and those same songs I’d previously dismissed are immeasurably better live. Hamilton Leithauser plays the perfect frontman, high-rise jeans and all, clutching a beer and crowing at the skies while each song gets stretched and bullied along. Also, in an amazing triumph of stage direction, each member of the band appears to be thinking about algebra, or Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, or the Spanish Civil War instead of about the fact that they’re playing music. Really—check the additional photos below.

At the end of the set, I’m thoroughly indulged. A screaming version of Bows + Arrows’ “Thinking of a Dream I Had” has me soaring on cloud nine, and I chalk it up as the top experience of the day.

 

Strolling along Speedway Meadow, I see a fistfight break out right next to me. Seriously, dudes are wailing on each other, trying to punch each others’ lights out. I’ve got this impulse, left over from high school, to break up fights, and it isn’t until I’ve helped push the one guy away from the other that I notice a Four Square court on the ground. They were fighting over a Four Square game. For reals.

When we walk across to Lindley Meadow, we notice that the organizers have thoughtfully widened the corral that was unmanageably bottlenecked the day before. It’s so uncrowded, in fact, that a trio of frat guys marches drunkenly down the path, arms around each other’s shoulders, singing “I Will Survive.” It must be weird to be known for a deadpan cover of a disco song.

Cake is playing, but they’re on the Sutro stage—a.k.a. The Inaccessible Stage—and we can’t see them at all behind the sound tent. They play “Frank Sinatra” and “Sheep Go to Heaven.” John McCrea’s monotone voice, which is so charming on record, is downright condescending in a live context and I can’t explain why.

“We’re Cake and we’re here to serve you!” he says. “This next song is from our very first album, which we’re re-releasing. We got it out of the steely claws of the record company and it’s ours again. Are claws steely? Some of them, I guess.”

They play “Rock ‘n Roll Lifestyle,” we get hungry, and the 100-page Outside Lands Festival booklet lets us know that they’re going “above and beyond the standard festival food.” This has resulted in food booths selling weird items like Three-Cheese and Figgy Jam sandwiches, but we see a hamburger stand and jump on it.

 

Tom Petty closes out the night. I like Tom Petty a lot, so this is a great thing, tainted only by the long and not very interesting story of our running around backstage trying to figure out why Tom Petty’s management will happily grant a photo pass to some no-name event website but not to an actual weekly newspaper with a large circulation throughout three counties in the Bay Area. Because of this, Tom Petty, you are represented in this review by this totally shitty photo. Hope you’re happy.

The show starts and it’s a steady steam train of Greatest Hits, which is just fine by me. “We got a lot of songs we’re gonna cram in before the curfew tonight!” Petty says. “We’ll play as many as we can!” And sure enough, they keep coming, one hit after another: “Listen to Her Heart,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Even the Losers,” “Free Fallin’,” “Last Dance with Mary Jane.”

People are flaming up joints. People are singing “Oh my, my, Oh hell yes.” People are twirling and dancing and doing what people do at Tom Petty concerts, and then people are hearing Tom Petty tell them that they have to take a five-minute break so the sound guys can replace a generator or something.

But it isn’t all for naught: “While we were back there, ” Petty says upon returning, “we ran into one of our favorite musicians in the world. Steve Winwood! So we asked him to come help us out on a couple songs. ”

So Steve straps on a guitar and sings “Can’t Find My Way Home” with the Heartbreakers, and then really tears the nonexistent roof off with “Gimme Some Lovin’.” It’s a song I’ve heard a million times, but I think, today, that I have heard the best version of “Gimme Some Lovin’” ever performed—Tom Petty and the band know that song like the backs of their Rickenbackers, and Winwood is on fire all the more because of it.

But when “Saving Grace” goes on and on into a long jam, I feel like maybe Petty was just kidding around by saying they’d try to cram as many songs as they could into their set. “Refugee” lasts forever, with the predictable last-song-before-the-encore guitar jam in full effect.

At this point, after a very long day, all I really want to hear is “Here Comes My Girl.” Instead, to my great shock, Tom Petty plays “Gloria.” As in, the song that every bar band in the world plays on any given night in any given city in the world. I’ve heard of Petty playing some great covers—Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” comes to mind—but “Gloria”?!

We bail. Tom Petty is still okay in my book. I’m glad I saw him. Ending the set with “American Girl” is probably the best thing he could have done, and we sing along as we wind our way back out onto 19th Avenue.

 

Photos by Elizabeth Seward – Lots More Photos After the Jump.

Live Review: Nellie McKay at the Mystic Theatre

Posted by: on Aug 19, 2008 | Comments (1)

I guess the best way to describe Nellie McKay’s show last night is this: in one minute, she pounded the hell out of her keyboard and screamed into the microphone, “Die, motherfucker, die!!” And in the next minute, she picked up a tiny ukelele and sang a beautiful, you-can-hear-a-pin-drop version of the jazz standard, “If I Had You.”

To a half-full house, Nellie McKay thrilled the Mystic Theater with a firestorm show of original songs from all ends of the spectrum, proving herself yet again as one of the craziest and talented songwriters around today. But it was McKay’s selection of cover songs that offset her quirky material in perfect fashion. “Feed the Birds,” from Mary Poppins, was sung in an amazingly authentic old-British-lady voice, along with “I Love to Laugh,” from the same soundtrack.

After her own topical songs about gay marriage, animal rights and feminism, McKay turned to the crowd and announced, “Here’s a song about illegal immigration!”

The song? “Don’t Fence Me In.”

In a similar sly maneuver, McKay performed the old Ella Fitzgerald tune “Vote for Mr. Rhythm,” with the lines: “Vote for Mr. Rhythm / Let freedom ring / Then we’ll all be singing / Of thee I swing.” This led into a mild he’ll-have-to-do endorsement of Obama—which then mutated into a ferociously passionate endorsement of Ralph Nader (??!). McKay even gyrated with mock lust when she described talking to Nader on the phone, and went on and on about how he’s full of great ideas, and sort of, like, failed to mention his overshadowing legacy to this country of viciously crippling the Democratic Party in the most important election ever. “Oh. Hey!” McKay exclaimed, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Does anyone here have chipmunks?”

As those who’ve seen her before can attest, McKay is plainly talented. . . and firmly sardonic about it. At one point, the crowd began hooting at a particularly flashy piano solo. “Oh, I’m just faking it!” McKay protested, and then went into a series of famous piano quotes—“Für Elise,” “Take the A Train”—to demonstrate? To refute? Who can tell?

Dressed in a red tasseled flapper dress and playing a Roland keyboard, McKay also told the crowd a long story—in a zombie voice, no less—about her grandma who used to drive up from the armpit of the Bay Area known as Milpitas after it took that title from Pacifica to come to Petaluma to sell Tupperware to ladies in Petaluma and she’d drive her Ford Galaxie which ran so smooth you could balance a dime on the hood and it was the same car her mom would drive years later when she was on acid and it was a great car but the terrible thing is that when her grandma left the ladies from Petaluma said they’d send her the money for the Tupperware but then they never did.

McKay’s own material, like set opener “Ding Dong” and encore “Clonie,” was brilliant as always. “Mother of Pearl,” with its 5,000 tongues in cheek about feminists not having a sense of humor, brought the house down, and “Work Song” turned into a three-part audience sing-along at the end. Nice also to hear “I Wanna Get Married,” previously discussed as a possible Gertrude Niesen tribute, and probably my favorite Nellie McKay song of all time, “Manhattan Avenue.”

Nellie McKay plays this Saturday at the Outside Lands Fetsival; be sure to haul ass from the Lupe Fiasco stage to catch her set.

I Wanna Get Married: Nellie McKay vs. Gertrude Niesen

Posted by: on Aug 13, 2008 | Comments (11)

One of the reasons, I’ve finally discovered, why I love Nellie McKay’s “I Wanna Get Married” so much is that while it operates as a satire, it doesn’t operate as a blatant, overt satire. It’s just a 19-year-old girl reacting to the idea of the 1950s housewife, that’s all—nothing more, nothing less. Young precociousness has a long tradition of successfully regurgitating the world’s own ideas back in its face without trying to color or polarize them with extemporaneous messages. The regurgitation itself is the message.

Here’s Nellie McKay, on The View, singing “I Wanna Get Married”:

I can think of no way Nellie McKay could have written “I Wanna Get Married” without having first heard Gertrude Niesen’s trademark of the same name, although considering McKay is such a dizzying creative force, well, hell, anything’s possible. Niesen’s “I Wanna Get Married” follows a similar meter, and it, too, is vaguely satirical. It comes from her smash role as the stripper Bubbles LaMarr in “Follow the Girls,” opposite Jackie Gleason, among others.

It took me forever to find this record, but click on the cover below to hear Gertrude Niesen, in 1944, singing “I Wanna Get Married”:

The liner notes of the Gertrude Niesen record tell of Niesen’s side career in flipping houses, a story that brings to mind the housing boom of 2002 as much as it recalls 1944: “Gertrude has been successfully dabbling in real estate for a number of years, buying a piece of property here and selling one there—at a substantial profit. People joked about her “white elephant” when Gertrude picked up a 50-room $2,000,000 Newport, RI mansion for $21,000 a few years ago. They laughed even more when the water pipes froze and burst. But Miss Niesen had the last laugh when she sold the estate a short time later for considerably more than she had paid for it.”

After releasing her stunning debut album, Get Away From Me, Nellie McKay, as this week’s Bohemian interview by Joy Lazendorfer points out, soon felt Sony’s enthusiasm for her brazenly inventive tin-pan-alley songwriting dwindle. She got dumped quickly. She’s put out a couple of not-as-good albums since, and she’s been appearing on and writing songs for Broadway. I’ve seen her live twice, and she’s fucking incredible. Go see her when she comes to town on Monday, August 18 at the Mystic Theater in Petaluma.