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Pat Metheny – From This Place

I can’t listen to this new Pat Metheny album without thinking of Metheny’s long time collaborator Lyle Mays who recently passed away.  From This Place is a guitar, piano and orchestra album. These last two features were the kind of contributions Lyle Mays typically made as keyboardist, composer and arranger in the Pat Metheny Group. Although this album’s creation predates Mays’ passing, I choose to savor it in Mays’ memory. Fortunately for us and in remembrance of Mays, From This Place is an extraordinary album.

The core musicians on the album besides Metheny, are long time Metheny drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and pianist  Gwilym Simcock. In addition, there is the Hollywood Studio Symphony conducted by Joel McNeely.

The addition of an orchestra is not an insignificant sweetener, it is core to the songs on From This Place. Adding an orchestra in jazz is dicey. In the wrong hands, it can distract or come across as a hackneyed attempt to make the music easier to digest. But in the right hands, it is an organic and essential component. With Metheny, the orchestra is in the right hands. This is not a surprise given Metheny’s experience with synthesizers and his Orchestrion projects. Metheny’s work has always been highly orchestrated, this album just uses a conventional symphony orchestra instead of automated constructs.

Metheny is from the American Midwest and over his career he has created many sonic love letters to the land he loves. But as we all know, there is trouble in paradise. Metheny signals his concern right off the bat with the album cover: our beautiful land is being attacked by a native predator: a twister.

The opening track is not subtle in title or content. “America Undefined” is the sonic equivalent of the album cover art. It starts out gentle and quiet, evolves into a complex beauty and ends violently. It is a fascinating instrumental editorial.

The content of the titular track is best expressed in Metheny’s own words from his website:

“On November 8, 2016, our country shamefully revealed a side of itself to the world that had mostly been hidden from view in its recent history. I wrote the piece From This Place in the early morning hours the next day as the results of the election became sadly evident.”

The song (it is more of a hymn) feature words by Alison Riley and vocals from her partner Meshell Ndegeocello. Per Metheny the words:

“…captured exactly the feeling of that tragic moment while reaffirming the hope of better days ahead.”

Although the album has a political context, I don’t think that over time it will be dated. Again Metheny’s words:

“Music continually reveals itself to be ultimately and somewhat oddly impervious to the ups and downs of the transient details that may even have played a part in its birth. Music retains its nature and spirit even as the culture that forms it fades away, much like the dirt that creates the pressure around a diamond is long forgotten as the diamond shines on.

I hope this record might stand as a testament to my ongoing aspiration to honor those values.”

Metheny is his usual phenomenal self. Sanchez and Han Oh are tasteful accompanists. I have not heard Simcock before and he is a star. He is a perfect foil to Metheny. In addition, Gregoire Maret (harmonica), and Luis Conte (percussion) make essential guest appearances.

Metheny’s work is always complex. At first taste, it is always delicious and easy to enjoy. But if you dig in, there is a richness and sophistication that rewards your effort. I am in the first taste stage of From This Place and I am confident that it is going to be a rewarding rabbit hole over the next several months. Metheny has never made a bad album, but this one stands out as a special masterpiece in his catalog. I may be forced to write a follow-up review after I have fully digested this album in a few months.

Marcus King – El Dorado

I liked Marcus King’s album Carolina Confessions, but El Dorado is at the next level of excellence. Produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, this could be the album that makes King a star.

Marcus King is a purveyor of what we used to call southern rock (Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, etc.). Hard rocking blues rock with a pinch of country.

Great blues-rock guitar players are a dime a dozen and so Auerbach has focused El Dorado on King’s other great gift: his vocals. There is still plenty of King’s guitar shredding, but there is a particular emphasis on King’s vocals. King purrs and roars and everything in between. At times he sounds like a sweeter Faces’ era Rod Stewart and sometimes like Greg Allman. You can hear the influences, yet King has his own voice.

Carolina Confessions was a by the book Allman Brothers devotional. El Dorado is a more diverse affair: acoustic blues, Black Keys styled garage rock, Ray Charles inspired ballads, country, Muscle Shoals’ soul, a little swamp rock and of course a touch of the Allmans. On paper, this sounds disjointed – a messy smorgasbord plate, but on the album, it works as a perfectly executed full course meal. I have a feeling this album is going to be in my rotation for a long time to come.

Santana – Africa Speaks

I am a minor fan of Santana. Specifically, I am a fan of the first four albums from 1969 – 1972 when Carlos Santana and his band helped create jazz-rock fusion. I did not follow his career after that and his Supernatural phase was a bit too much of a pop sellout for my taste. Long and short, Santana fell off my radar.

I like to look at year-end album “best of” lists for two reasons: to validate my taste and to find out if I have missed something. Those lists end up reminding me that my music taste is pretty pedestrian and I always seem to miss something.  Africa Speaks is an example of a 2019 release I totally missed. The New York Times’ Jon Pareles had Santana’s Africa Speaks as number three on his 2019 list. This was the only legacy artist on his list and so I gave it a listen. Turns out, it is as good as those first four albums. Santana still has it.

So how is it that Carlos Santana still “has it” fifty years into his career? First Rick Rubin (who produced), second Buika (who composed most of the songs and sings) and most importantly Carlos Santana’s adventurous musical soul. Per Rolling Stone this is how it went down, Santana said to Rubin:

‘”I know you’ve worked with everybody like Johnny Cash and the Chili Peppers and Metallica,’ And he goes, ‘Well, what are you interested in doing?’ I said, ‘Nothing but African music.’ So can you believe it? We record 49 songs in 10 days. He was very gracious, because it was like a hurricane to record six, seven songs in a day. Rick said, ‘With Clive Davis, you had a bunch of guest stars and singers. Who do you want in here?’ I said, ‘I only want two women: Laura Mvula and Buika.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ So we called them and they said yes.”

The two main features on the album are Santana’s red hot guitar playing and Buika’s compositions and vocals. If you liked Santana’s early work you are going to like this. In addition to great songs and performances, the album is exquisitely recorded and mixed.

 

Jeff Parker – Suite For Max Brown

I was reading Pitchfork’s New Music Friday suggestions and this caught my eye:

Suite for Max Brown is a tribute to guitarist Jeff Parker’s mother, whose photograph appears on the cover. Parker recorded the album with his New Breed ensemble, which features Makaya McCraven on drums, vocals from Parker’s daughter Ruby, and others.

In his Best New Music review of the album, Steven Arroyo writes, “Suite for Max Brown is a place where a 26-second, Dilla-indebted loop of an Otis Redding sample and 10 minutes of a jazz quintet weaving around what sounds like someone stacking plastic cups can share a tracklist; each is equally meaningful.”

I gave it a listen and I am fascinated. What the hell is this?  Is it jazz, hip hop, rock, sound effects, electronic doodling, etc.? My conclusion: it is organized beautiful noise, that is, music. Sometimes, classifying music is a futile activity, I am just glad I stumbled across this gem.

This is weird and adventurous music, it is out there. It is experimental but grounded in a kind of gentleness that allows it to go down easy. If you are a fan of jazz and the kinds of things J Dilla did and Madlib still does, you may like this. Imagine if a band like Weather Report or an artist like Charles Mingus had been informed by hip hop.

My first listen had my head spinning, by my second listening, I embraced its beauty.  Louis Armstrong famously said:

There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good kind.

Jeff Parker plays the good kind, albeit the weird kind.

iFi Zen Blue HiFi Bluetooth Receiver

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We recently purchased new speakers for our main living space. The primary source of music in that space is streaming (Tidal and Spotify) from our iPhones. I bought a Rocketfish RF-BTR315 Bluetooth receiver (photo below) to tide us over, but I wanted something with a little more quality.  The Rockfish worked and sounded fine – its primary deficiency is that you need to be in fairly close proximity to broadcast to the receiver.  But for a $35 solution, I had no complaints.

 

I realize that Bluetooth is not an audiophile solution for streaming, but it is convenient. For example, devices effortless pair and no additional software is required and Bluetooth has a low price point.  If you have someone over and they want to play music from their phone, it is easy for them to connect to a Bluetooth receiver.

I did some research on an upgrade to the Rocketfish.  I was looking for:

  • A quality DAC
  • Something that I could stream various apps from my phone (primarily Spotify and Tidal)
  • Something that could play Tidal MQA
  • Something better than Bluetooth for connectivity
  • A reasonable price (e.g. under $300)

I found various solutions like Bluesound’s NODE 2i at $550 and iFi’s Pro iDSD at $2800 – you see a pattern here – expensive. I am reluctant to pay big bucks for a digital solution that is likely to be outdated within a year. It is not like speakers, amps, and turntables which are evergreen.  Then I found a reasonably priced solution – the iFi Zen Blue HiFi Bluetooth Receiver at $130.

Per the manufacture’s web site:

It uses Bluetooth5.0®, the very latest version, and the newest Qualcomm 5100 chip to process all incoming Bluetooth® data.  There ESS Sabre DAC chip is there to ensure an extremely smooth digital to analogue conversion.  Banish standard ‘Bluetooth Blues’ with the iFi hi-res implementation.

I am not technical – so I can’t vouch for Zen’s technology, but I can tell you it sounds great and I can go anywhere in my two-story condo with my phone and the Zen stays connected.  I did A/B test against my laptop hardwired to an Audioquest Dragonfly Black DAC and it sounded just as good to my not so golden ears.  Granted the Dragonfly is not exactly a high-end solution.

The Zen checks most of my boxes except MQA and that it is Bluetooth. Tidal Masters (MQA) sounds better than Spotify tracks on the Zen, so it is complementing the source. It definitely sounds better than the Rockfish. As I mentioned above, I could not detect diminished sound quality when I A/B tested to my Dragonfly.   For $130 it is plenty hi-rez for my needs.

The device itself has excellent build quality.  It gets good reviews online.  Ifi has a good reputation in the digital audio space.

Some common complaints are that the display is too bright (not a problem for me as I have it in a cabinet and in my particular application I am not staring at it) and you can’t turn it off (not an issue for me as I have it plugged into my receiver’s switched outlet which means when I turn off the receiver it cuts power to the Zen).  I dig its retro 60s space-age styling.  It has an impressive output stage with both analog and digital outputs.  It has an additional balanced analog output if you have equipment that can take advantage of that feature (I don’t).

iFi is not over hyping the product when they say;

“This ultra-affordable hi-res Bluetooth® streamer enables you to chillax in style.”

I can comfortably recommend this product.

 

Rose City Band – Rose City Band

I saw this album in the AllMusic new release email and listened to it purely based on the cover art (congratulations Darryl Norsen – mission accomplished).

My first reaction was that this was country shoegaze. Here is what it evoked:

  • J.J. Cale’s hypnotic vibe
  • The mellower side of Neil Young, e.g. “Four Strong Winds” from Comes A Time
  • The Rolling Stones’ country schtick on Quaaludes, e.g. “Dead Flowers”
  • Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions (one of my favorite LPs from the 80s)
  • Nick Drake
  • Murmur era R.E.M.
  • The Velvet Underground

I absolutely love it – enough so to rush out post-snowstorm and pick it up on vinyl.

Producer Ripley Johnson (Wooden Shjips / Moon Duo) describes the album:

“The band was aiming to capture a timeless, natural sound, not quite of the present, past, or future, but phasing in between the consciousness of now and the stoned dream-state of the eternal. Sort of a back porch jam just as the shrooms are starting to kick in. Handmade and human, but also cosmic and transcendental. The goal is to let the music speak for itself and hopefully find a weird and wonderful audience somewhere out there.”

I have no idea if this is a real band or the studio creation of Ripley Johnson. I could not find anything useful on line or on the LPs liner notes regarding the band. I assume this is a Johnson side project. The band has Twitter and Instagram accounts, but those are not very revealing .

The album came out last summer on Johnson’s label (Jean Sandwich Records) and this is a reissue now that the band is signed to Thrill Jockey.

This is the perfect blend of cosmic Americana twang and chill vibes. Braided guitar riffs, easy going beats, and plaintive murky vocals. The vocals are as indecipherable as early R.E.M. and I am OK with that – I am here for a vibe not a lecture.

I will be spinning this one a lot. I think I am exactly the weird and wonderful audience the band is aiming for.

P.S. Rose City is Portland Oregon.

Catchgroove Hall of Fame: Pat Metheny Group – Offramp

Offramp is an important milestone in the Pat Metheny catalog:

  • Pat discovered and mastered the guitar synthesizer (Roland GR-300) and it would forever impact his work – it made his compositions orchestrations and not merely arrangements. The guitar synth significantly increased his palette.
  • Pat revealed his love for Ornette Coleman (on the opening track and the titular track).
  • Pat introduced some subtle vocals to the Pat Metheny Group (PMG) sound. He and Mays had experimented with that the year before in their side project As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. Adding vocals to the PMG sound brought it to a larger audience. The vocals are not pop, but another jazz instrument.
  • He challenged his audience – he was going to be an adventurous artist. It was not going to be all silk, there was going to be some rag wool too.  He did not lose his audience, he grew it.

At the time that this album was released, I was a big fan – I saw him live with each album cycle. The Offramp show I saw was at the next level from what I had heard on records and what I had seen in the previous live shows.

I was first introduced to Metheny via the first PMG album which is pastoral folk-jazz. I backtracked through Metheny’s solo career and sideman work which was conventional jazz. After that first PMG album, he did a solo album that was just Pat multi-tracking resulting in conventional ECM audio wallpaper. The second PMG album (American Garage) was a nod to rock and pop. His next, 80/81, gave him credibility with the jazz heads as it was a traditional jazz combo playing conventional post-bop jazz. As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls was a wonderfully odd soundscape of melodic sound effects.

Then came Offramp, which became the blueprint for the rest of his career: adventurous post-bop jazz, easy listening folk-jazz, elaborate cinematic arrangements and weird sounds that complement vs. distract. A perfect cocktail in the LP format.

A big part of Offramp’s sound is the guitar synth. Pat made the guitar synthesizer sound as organic as a horn. Clearly, Pat’s guitar synth solos are horn solos. When you put a tool like the Roland GR-300 in the hands of a guy with Pat’s technical savvy and music skills you get magic.

In my mind, this is the album that made Patrick Bruce Metheny PAT METHENY. After the first two PMG albums, he risked being a jazz-pop cat – the kind of thing Kenny G became. But he had a different plan: he was going to make some real accessible shit and then sneak a fast one on you with some far-out-bat-shit-crazy-jazz. It was a nice compromise. He opened a lot of ears including mine.

Paradigm Premier 800F Tower Speakers

I have had a pair of Paradigm bookshelf speakers for many years (Monitor SE Atom) and I have enjoyed them immensely.  I appreciate their accurate representation of sound. So when it was time to go shopping for some tower speakers (when your wife suggests buying new speakers – get busy), Paradigm was on top of my list of speakers to check out.

We live in a loft-like space (open concept and high ceilings) and we wanted a speaker that would fill that space. Some of the checkboxes were:

  • The speakers would be used for stereo music vs. a home theater situation.
  • They needed to have a wide soundstage – these would not be sitting in sweet spot speakers.
  • They need to sound good at low volume – they will be primarily enjoyed passively (AKA background music).
  • They needed to be efficient as they will be powered by a small amp (NAD 7240PE which is conservatively rated at 40 watts).
  • They need to have adequate bass as they will not be augmented by a subwoofer.
  • They need to look good in a nonintrusive way.
  • They need a moderate footprint.

We went to Stereoland and listened to their Paradigm, KEF, and Golden Ear speaker lines.  We fell in love with Paradigm’s Premier 800F speakers despite the fact they were over our price point. The 800Fs checked all the boxes above and so we walked out with a pair with an espresso grain finish.

No speaker can be judged until you get them home. The components that will feed them matter, but the biggest wild card is the room. The 800Fs sound great from all angles of our listening space. Like their smaller cousins (my old Monitor SE Atom speakers), they accurately reproduce sound. But, because they are so much bigger than the Atoms they fill the space and cover you with a warm blanket of beautiful noise.

On the technical side, the 800F has four drivers: a tweeter for high sounds, a midrange for middle sounds and two woofers for bass. The bass is a 3-way bass reflex. Bass reflex means, that in addition to the two woofers, there is a port on the rear of the speaker cabinet. This port enables the sound from the rear side of the woofers to escape the speaker’s enclosure. This increases the efficiency of the speaker at low frequencies (bass) as compared to a typical closed-box speaker. This is a standard feature of Paradigms – even my little bookshelf Atom Paradigms had this feature. I love the bass on these speakers – it packs a punch without booming. The tweeter and midrange use Paradigm’s patented PPA lens, which stands for Perforated Phase-Aligning Driver Lenses. Per Paradigm: “high frequencies tend to congregate, and can sound muddled, obscuring details and shrouding image clarity.” PPA resolves that. I don’t really understand all of that (bass reflex and PPA), but the 800Fs are the best sounding speakers I have ever owned (including my beloved Klipsch KG2s).

Speakers are the most personal audio choice you can make. I would be hard-pressed to recommend speakers to someone. The only way to make a decision is to work with a good dealer like Stereoland who has a brick and mortar presence.  Then you can audition the speakers in the store and ultimately test drive them at home. My wife and I love these speakers – they are a good match to our home both visually and most importantly sonically. We are pleased with our choice and look forward to many years of enjoyment.

(Above) This gives you a sense of how the Paradigms visually fit our home.

(Above) this gives you a sense of the sonic challenges of our listening space: long room, 10′ ceilings on the left channel and 20′ on the right.

Links to some more reviews:

Best of 2019

There was a lot of great music in 2019, but this is a year that I am hard-pressed to single out an album that I can call the best.  I have a lot of favorites to share with you in no particular order.

Grace Potter – Daylight 

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I am a long time fan of Grace Potter.  This may be her best album to date.  In a different era, or if she was a “he,” Potter would be a big star.  The original post is here.

Yola – Walk Through Fire 

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I love podcasts.  Without a recent Broken Record podcast, I would not have discovered this album. The album is country-ish, but it is also soulful. It has a retro sound, but not the tired retro-soul sound that has been played to death over the last decade. It is more of a country-pop sound from the 60s. Think of Patsy Cline from the past or a southern fried Adele from today. The best comparison is Mavis Staples, who always seems comfortable with a bit of country in her soul music.  The original post is here.

Green Lung – Woodland Rites

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I never got around to writing a post about this album.  One of the best things I have done on Instagram has been to follow hashtags – I have discovered so many cool things from that.  The album cover for Green Lung’s Woodland Rites showed up in my Instagram feed and it caught my attention. I decided to give it a listen and instantly loved it. It reminded me of Ozzy-era Black Sabbath.  Physical versions are hard to obtain (there is not a domestic release), but it is available on streaming services.

Sturgill Simpson Sound And Fury 

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Sturgill’s last album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, was my favorite album of 2016.  Sturgill’s latest is an outright rock record, southern rock, but rock all the same.  With Sound & Fury, Simpson makes the case that he is going to have a Neil Young type career: throwing knuckleballs that have wicked movement. One moment heavy metal and the next bouncy bubblegum. Somehow those juxtapositions work and are oddly seamless.  Simpson can shred like Neil too.  The original post is here.

Lana Del Rey Norman Fucking Rockwell 

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Lana Del Rey has been around for a while now (her debut album came out in 2010). I feel like I should be a fan:

  • I take female artists seriously (Joni Mitchell rivals Dylan for my favorite artist)
  • I am a big fan of current female pop stars
  • I love dreamy slow songs
  • Mazzy Star is one of my favorite bands
  • Cat Power’s The Greatest is one of my favorite albums

But somehow LDR has never really resonated with me.  But this album has hooked me, it is dreamy and petulant. Dare I say that LDR sounds like a millennial Joni Mitchell? She sounds nothing like Mitchell, but evokes her spirit: spilling her soul in that direct, yet oblique Joni way. Sonically the very modern production makes subtle nods to Laurel Canyon’s 70s soft rock.  I like it enough that I am now backtracking through her catalog.

Bon Iver i,i 

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I like this album more than their last album (22, A Million). That album was a major shift from the folk sound of their prior two albums to a harsher more electronic sound. i, i sounds like the perfect reconciliation of their first two albums with 22, A Million.  The original post is here.

Thom Yorke Anima

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This is my favorite vinyl packaging of 2019 and is it my favorite Thom Yorke recording outside of Radiohead.  Anima lands squarely in the electronic soundscapes that solo-Yorke has worked in since his debut solo album The Eraser in 2006. It alternates between infectious dance numbers and dirges (sometimes in the same song). Ultimately, this is dream music. Not only dreamy sounding, but I assume we are getting a peek at Yorke’s unconscious mind on this album.

Yorke developed Anima with longtime Radiohead producer and collaborator Nigel Godrich via studio work and live shows. It was accompanied by a 15-minute short film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson released on Netflix.  The film complements the album and the album complements the film.  The original post is here.

Jessy Wilson Phase 

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Thank goodness for warm-up acts.  If Jessy had not warmed up for Gary Clark Jr. I would have never discovered her.  If you need categories, I will say this is a combination of soul music and psychedelic rock. If you don’t need categories, file this under good music. In addition to being an engaging performer, Jessy is a songwriter; she is the whole package.  The original post is here.

Bruce Springsteen Western Stars

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I should never underestimate the masters of the classic rock era.  Bruce is still very much in the game. This is an outstanding album – it may be his best since The Rising in 2002 and rivals his glory days. This is an interesting tweak on the Springsteen sound: an orchestra and pedal steel. Where Bruce used to use the E Street Band or synths, he is now using an orchestra and pedal steel. It does not sound saccharine, it sounds sweet.  This really works.  The original post is here.

J.S. Ondara Tales Of America 

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I am always amazed that there is a gem hiding in your own back yard. Ondara came to Minnesota to find the muse of Bob Dylan. He was twenty and not even a serious musician. He dove in headfirst to become a singer-songwriter and six years later he has a major label LP release. I won’t even try to recap the story – it is better told other places.  If it was fiction, it would be preposterous. The songs are pop-folk with great hooks, think of a contemporary Simon and Garfunkel. This is an amazing debut, it is confident and mature.  The original post is here.

The Black Keys Let’s Rock 

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The Black Keys have been on hiatus for a few years.  There are no innovations here, just good rocking music. The dirty riffs have just enough sweetening (a keyboard here, a backup vocalist there) to go down easy. The Black Keys remind me of AC/DC – not that they sound like them – but that they have found a signature groove and consistently delivered quality rock music for nearly twenty years now. This is just another reliable chapter in the Black Keys story.  The original post is here.

Kishi Bashi Omoiryai 

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I can’t tell you how many times I have selected an album purely based on album art. Before the internet, I discovered new music on the radio, reading magazines and based on reputation.  Catchy cover art was also one of my ways of discovering new music. It happens less frequently in this streaming age, but it still happens. Kishi Bashi’s Omoiyari is a recent example.

What I hear on the album (both in the music and the words) are longing and romance.  The music is beautiful, Bashi has gorgeous melodies decorated in elaborate arrangements.  I hear Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Paul Simon – Bashi’s vocals are ethereal.  The original post is here.

Black Pumas Black Pumas 

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This is slow-burning soul – in the quiet storm tradition. Great vocals, sophisticated arrangements (that are not too busy) and tasty guitar work.  The original post is here.

The National I Am Easy To Find 

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On paper, I should be a huge The National fan (an algorithm would say so), however, their work has never resonated with me. I did not hate The National’s music – it bored me.  I heard the teaser singles and I liked it enough to listen to the new album when it dropped. I am no expert on The National, but it seems like a new sound for them – not boring, but exquisitely weird. This is a great album and I think I could now become a fan.  The original post is here.

Maren Morris Girl

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This is my least favorite album cover art of 2019 – it undermines Morris.  Despite Morris’ pop production and looking like a teenager, this is adult music (she is 29 so this should not be a surprise). There are fourteen songs here – even more impressive is that there is no filler material. There are some hit songs here, but every song is good – there is not a stinker on the album. The original post is here.

Maggie Rogers Heard It In A Past Life

Maggie Rogers enchanted me in 2019.  Maggie Rogers fuses a folkie singer-songwriter groove with EDM in a totally natural way.  It sounds familiar and unique at the same time.  The original post is here.

Vampire Weekend Father Of The Bride

 

Vampire Weekend has been quiet for a few years and lost a key member (Rostam Batmanglij) and so I was concerned if they would still have it.  The new album is terrific: poppy, quirky and as ambitious as ever. It is not out of character with its three predecessor LPs.  The original post is here.

Tedeschi Trucks Band Signs

The band is not mining new ground here, just continuing to craft high quality and perfectly executed blues-rock as they have on their previous live and studio albums. If you miss the Allman Brothers, this album will fill that hole. The original post is here.

Jenny Lewis On The Line

On the Line is clearly Jenny Lewis, but not The Voyager II (despite similar torso branding on the cover. It’s something altogether different – not radically different, but it is its own thing. The Voyager was Jenny’s Court And Spark – a California Laurel Canyon pop folk-rock masterpiece. Super accessible, yet uncompromising. On the Line is edgier. It is a rock record, lest we forget Lewis’s origin as an indie-rocker. The original post is here.

Bob Mould Sunshine Rock

This album uses the classic Bob Mould power trio, occasionally augmented (perfectly) with strings and keys. It is a difficult time for rock, having fallen out of fashion, but Mould has pulled off a miracle 40 years into his career: a perfect pop-punk album – authentic and enthusiastic.  The original post is here.

Gary Clark Jr. This Land

This may be my favorite Gary Clark Jr. album. This LP is all over the map: classic rock, the blues, R&B, punk, reggae, Prince, and hip-hop infused neo-soul. Despite the stylistic chaos, there is cohesion. That cohesion is the total persona of Gary Clark Jr. He has become a rock star. No simple accomplishment in these times. The original post is here.

Tyler Childers Country Squire

This is an amazing album and puts Childers in the same class as my contemporary oddball country heroes Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price. I am smitten and a little embarrassed I am so late to the party (this is Childers’ third album).  The original post is here.

The Who Who

This is only the fourth studio album since Keith Moon passed in 1978. I have enjoyed all those post-Moon albums, but this may be their best and most cohesive of the four. They have somehow updated their sound without compromising who they are. They use modern recording techniques like pitch correction artistically and lean on their classic synth loops without sounding dated. Most of all they sound unmistakably like The Who. The original post is here.

Circles Around The Sun Circles Around The Sun Meets Joe Russo 

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The EP has a mellow vibe, and as usual, Neal Casal’s playing is tasteful. For a set of improvised instrumental jams, this has a very composed and arranged feel. It has less of a Grateful Dead flavor than their other two albums. Instead, it has more of a 70s jazz-rock groove – it reminds me of a sedated Return To Forever. For me, keyboardist Adam MacDougall is the star of this session. He plays multiple keyboards and it feels like the rest of the band is supporting his riffs and melodies. I like that this EP has a more original sound than their first two releases and my only complaint is that it is an EP versus an LP, that is, it is too short.  The original post is here.

Wilco Ode To Joy

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After a short break from touring and recording, Wilco is back with their 11th album (and on the road).  Ode To Joy is a quiet and mellow album. It has a late-night dozing off groove – in a good way.  This album does not stray far from the Wilco template the band has been honing since 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But that is alright with me. That template allows for endless clever iterations. Ode To Joy is another successful entry in the Wilco catalog.  I recently saw Wilco live and they are playing the hell out of this album (8 songs out of 29 song set). The songs work well live and weave nicely with the rest of the Wilco catalog.

Norah Jones Begin Again

I am just getting to this album now after plucking it from the used bin at the Electric Fetus a few months ago. I was reminded of it on the Broken Record podcast.

I am not sure how this got so low on my listening list. I typically buy Norah the day it comes out. I was a Norah Jones fan even before I knew who she was – I was hooked by the cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” she did with guitarist Charlie Hunter on his 2001 release Songs from the Analog Playground. I was an early adopter of Jones. On the strength of her work with Charlie Hunter, I bought Come Away With Me on release day in early 2002. That album eventually sold 27 million copies. A rare moment I was ahead of the wave. To add to the shame, two of the seven cuts on Begin Again Jones co-wrote with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (a member of my musician Mt. Rushmore).  Now that I have given it a good listen, this is a delightful EP.

The Claypool Lennon Delirium South Of Reality

I am not a Les Claypool/Primus fan nor a Sean Lennon fan. I heard Sean Lennon on a WTF Podcast this past summer and was intrigued enough after that to give the recent Claypool Lennon Delirium album South Of Reality a listen. I liked it – enough to pick it up on vinyl.

So what the hell is this? Imagine if John Lennon fronted Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd with a really heavy bass player and a touch of weird humor.  If you dig 60s psychedelic rock you will like this album. The album cover pretty much says it all.

Tool Fear Inoculum

I really like the new Tool album. I am not much of a Tool fan and I am not sure why. I enjoyed 2001’s Lateralus, but it never prompted me to explore the rest of their catalog. Their combination of metal, prog and psychedelic rock should be right up my alley. There is a lot of music to consume and so it is inevitable that some great ones will get missed.

Fear Inoculum sounds like Metallica on the nod. Imagine if Metallica’s “One” was representative of their catalog. This album is a metal quiet storm. Fear Inoculum is slow and brooding, yet not sludgy. I really appreciate how the album is engineered: huge drums and lots of space.  I am not a lyric guy, so I have no idea what the songs are about. But I sure do like the sound of singer Maynard James Keenan’s voice.

Chris Robinson Brotherhood Servants Of The Sun

I have been grooving on the Chris Robinson Brotherhood (CRB) since their 2012 debut Big Moon Ritual. If you are not familiar with the band, Chris Robinson was the vocalist for the Black Crowes. Rather than the Faces inspired blues-rock that was the basis for the Crowes’ successful debut (it sold over five million copies), the CRB is Grateful Dead inspired jam rock. For me, the main features are Chris Robinson’s bluesy vocals, Neal Casal’s psychedelic guitar and Adam MacDougall’s wall of funky keyboards.

Servants of the Sun is more of the same from the CRB and that is all right with me because I can’t get enough. They have been remarkably consistent and prolific (this is their sixth studio album). On the surface, this band sounds relaxed and easy-going. But the more carefully you listen the more you realize the band’s complexity and sophistication. It is the musical equivalent to a basketball layup vs. a slam dunk – keeping in mind that both options only result in two points. I prefer the subtlety of the layup to the aggression and arrogance of the slam dunk. Despite their jam-band vibe, they are not about showy solos. Everything is in service to the song.

If you are a Deadhead, specifically from Wake of the Flood to Shakedown Street you are going to dig the CRB. Servants of the Sun is as good a place to start as any of their albums.

Taylor Swift Lover

Taylor Swift is good at being a pop star. She knows how to stoke the star-making machine, she puts on epic over the top live shows and she can write and perform quality pop songs. This is a solid collection of catchy pop songs. What more do you want?

Atmosphere Whenever

I am a loyal Atmosphere fan and so I listen to all their stuff. I really appreciate that they continue to create quality new material nearly a quarter-century into their career. They are not trying to be stars, but trying to serve their tribe. They have managed to create a nice little niche in the hip hop world. There is nothing innovative here, just fine craftsmanship and that is ok with me. This is sonic comfort food.  Don’t think of that as a dis, this is a very good album.

Replacements Dead Man’s Pop

I liked Don’t Tell A Soul when it came out. I did not really notice the 80s production at the time or even now until I heard this mix by the album’s original producer, Matt Wallace.  After that, I realized how wrong the original mix was.  The remix is a revelation and moves Don’t Tell A Soul from a good album to a great album.   In addition to the remix, the collection includes outtakes from the Don’t Tell A Soul era and a live show.  If you are a Replacements fan, this is a must-have.

Bob Dylan Travelin’ Thru, 1967 – 1969: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 15

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This latest entry to the Bob Dylan Bootleg series focuses on Dylan’s work in Nashville with Johnny Cash – the period that created John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and Self Portrait.  The gems here are Dylan and Cash playing together.  The whole collection is only available if you buy it, but a sample is available on streaming services to give you a little taste.

Prince 1999 Super Deluxe

When 1999 was released in 1982 Prince was overflowing in creativity. In addition to releasing a double album, Prince released albums from his side projects The Time and Vanity Six. 1999 was Prince’s first big success.

1999 has recently been reissued as a 10 disk box set. It includes a remastered original, all the B sides from that era, a bunch of previously unreleased material and a live show. The revelation for me was the unreleased material – there is a lot of quality material here.

Fortunately, it is all available on streaming services so even if you aren’t a Prince completist willing to pay $250 for the vinyl edition, there is no reason not to check this mega release.

The Highwomen The Highwomen

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The Highwomen is a country supergroup composed of  Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires.  For me, the album coincided with my recent connecting with the music of Maren Morris and Brandi Carlile – both of which I witnessed live in 2019.  These are great songs, great performances and great production by David Cobb.

Brittany Howard Jaime

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Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes fame released a solo album in 2019.  It is wonderfully odd and personal. The album includes easy to listen to pop songs along with more challenging alternative rock songs, but it is always interesting.

Harry Styles – Fine Line 

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It is not as good as the debut, it is not bad, it is not a step forward, it is a bit of a step backward. However, when you are Harry Styles, even your second-best work is damn good. I am just having fun with the album – it’s a blast. It is pop cotton candy and I love cotton candy.

Well, that is a wrap – sorry it was so long, but there was a lot of great music this year.  I don’t pretend to suggest this is the best music released in 2019 – only what I was exposed to and what resonated with me.  As I look at other year-end lists I am amazed at how much I missed. I hope you find something on this list that will bring you pleasure.

 

Circles Around The Sun – Circles Around The Sun Meets Joe Russo

I was saddened to hear earlier this year that guitarist Neal Casal had died. I was first introduced to Casal as a member of Ryan Adams’ Cardinals era band, but I did not realize it. I finally noticed him as a member of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. I enjoyed his guitar mastery and that it complemented the song and never dominated the mix. Casal’s playing is the definition of tasteful.

A few years ago Casal had a one-off gig to compose and perform instrumental music between sets at The Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” concerts. It was such a success it became its own thing resulting in two studio albums and touring. That thing became known as Circles Around The Sun (CATS for short).

This EP is an informal studio jam. Per the label’s (Royal Potato Family) website:

California-based, psychedelic rock band Circles Around The Sun and revered drummer Joe Russo have come together for a four song EP simply entitled, ‘Circles Around The Sun Meets Joe Russo.’ The electrifying collection stems from a completely improvised recording session at The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn during Winter 2019. The results of the secret collaboration were mixed by legendary recording engineer Jim Scott whose Grammy Award-winning work includes albums by Tom Petty and Tedeschi Trucks Band and Circles Around The Sun’s bassist Dan Horne who has an impressive production/mixing discography in his own right with artists such as Cass McCombs, Allah-Las and Mapache.

The EP has a mellow vibe, and as usual, Casal’s playing is tasteful. For a set of improvised instrumental jams, this has a very composed and arranged feel. It has less of a Grateful Dead flavor than their other two albums. Instead, it has more of a 70s jazz-rock groove – it reminds me of a sedated Return To Forever. For me, keyboardist Adam MacDougall is the star of this session. He plays multiple keyboards and it feels like the rest of the band is supporting his riffs and melodies. I like that this EP has a more original sound than their first two releases and my only complaint is that it is an EP versus an LP, it is too short.

Fortunately, this will not be the last CATS album featuring Casal. I have read that the band was far enough along on another album when Casal died that they have a full album in the can. We should see that sometime in 2020.

If you are a fan of Dead-like jams and mellow (but not lite) jazz fusion, you will dig this EP.