Monday, January 25, 2010

My Music History - Where It All Began

If you've spent any time around me, you no doubt know that I am very passionate about music. I spend countless hours listening to music, playing music, reading about music, and discovering music. The other day, I started trying to figure out when this all started.

The first memory I have of being drawn in by music was around 1983 when I was 4 years old. My grandparents were buying a new car, and I got to tag along for the ride. We were excited about the new car, but I was most excited about the upgrade in the sound system. Their current car at the time had an 8-track player, and most everyone had started listening to cassettes by then.

We decided we'd need some tunes for the ride home, so we stopped by the local Wal-Mart. Anytime you needed new music in Booneville, MS, Wal-Mart was and still is your only option. I still remember how much easier it was to shop for cassettes than CD's. All the artists' names were right there staring back at you, and I learned quickly how to find my favorites. We settled on Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits and were on our way. I had no idea at the time how much it would add to the "cool factor" of my first musical adventure to be able to throw in Willie's name.

We got to the dealership, and soon we were off in a brand new blue 1983 Pontiac Bonneville. Careful not to touch the velour seats with my shoes, I climbed into the front seat. Right in front of me was the stereo. An AC Delco unit with a chrome knob on each side, six chrome buttons for the station presets, and a dial that went left to right and indicated the radio station. I popped the new cassette in and my journey began.

As we rode home to the sounds of "Whiskey River," "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," "Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground," and 'On The Road Again," I was drawn in like never before. From that day on, I always rode front and center with full control of the tunes. It was my first experience being able to listen to what I wanted without waiting for the radio DJ to play it.

I rode thousands of miles in that car, and a big part of my personality was formed. My grandparents were young enough that they were usually mistaken for my parents (this thrilled my grandmother), and they were always on the go. I treated the car like it was mine, and would scold any one who dared put their feet in the seats. I remember how my granparents would enjoy it when I sang along with their favorite songs. I also remember how they tolerated some of my personal music choices (I was really into 80's hair metal for a while). Most of all I remember the good times we had.

They kept that Pontiac until 1991. By that time, I was completely infatuated with music of all kinds. That infatuation continues to this day.

If you've been reading this blog, you know the music that I am currently enjoying. Now you know where it all began. I'll be filling in the gaps with my future posts (I'll also write about the present). If you have any early musical memories, feel free to share them in the comments section.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

My Favorite Albums of 2009 Conclusion - #5-1

This turned out to be much harder than I thought. I ended up leaving out a few albums that I really enjoyed, and on any given day could have replaced most any of the albums on this list. There are also a few albums that I didn't pick up until the last week of 2009 (or the first week of 2010) that would have likely made the cut if I had a few more weeks to evaluate them.

At any rate, these are my top 5 favorite albums of 2009.

5. Lucero - 1372 Overton Park: I only have two Lucero albums, this one and Rebels, Rogues, & Sworn Brothers. 1372 Overton Park is a quantum leap forward from their last album. The hooks are tighter, the lyrics stronger, and the music more memorable (the horn section is a nice touch).

These songs are full of whiskey, cigarettes, and youth searching for something (meaning, love, the next bar....). Although the tunes don't specifically mention it, you can definitely tell from the feeling that this is a Memphis-bred album (of course the title is a dead giveaway for locals). This album is polished in all the right areas and ragged just the same. All the studio sheen in the world couldn't take the grit out of front man Ben Nichols' voice, and the band is better for it.

Perhaps my favorite trait of the album is how decidedly Southern it is. It begins with the characters of from the song "Smoke" hanging around a mid-town bar and ends with the line "Mama we're still your boys." To me that pretty much sums up the Sunday morning / Saturday night phenomenon so prominent in the South.

4. The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You: Brothers Scott and Seth from Concord, NC have been at this for years, building a loyal and expanding fan base in the process. Say what you want, but when you bring in Rick Rubin to produce, you are clearly aiming for the stars. A lot of their long-time fans took offense to this and fans of underground bands usually do. Luckily, the music here is as good as ever (if slightly less quirky) and Rubin manages to bring focus and just the right amount of production value to the talented siblings.

This album shows how powerful acoustic music can still be. The songs are smart, the harmonies tight, and the musicianship outstanding. When I saw the somewhat dark cover art and read the title of the second song "January Wedding," I expected a murder ballad. However, nothing could be further from the truth as this is probably the sweetest song released this year. Here is my favorite verse from the song and the album:

No longer does it matter what circumstances we were born in
She knows which birds are singin'
And the names of the trees where they're performin' in the mornin'
And in January we're gettin' married
Come January let's get married

Funny how a seemingly simple line can say so much. Don't get the wrong impression that this is an album full of sappy love songs, but don't expect much moping or negativity either...just beautiful music.

3. Monsters of Folk - Self Titled: Monsters of Folk is comprised of Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes, and M. Ward. This super group manages do what most super groups fail to do...make an album of good songs. Most super groups sound fine and they definitely seem to be having a good time, but the songs tend to sound like they were written in a week as an excuse to get together and record an album. That's not the case here. Every song on this album is fully developed and interesting. The range of styles here is immense. From the beat-driven lush pop of "Dear God" to the pure folk of "Man Named Truth," this album manages to create something entirely different from the members' full-time gigs.

I think the thing that strikes me most about this album is that the guys sound like an actual band. Maybe that's because they have played together off and on since 2004when they toured together with their respective bands. On many of the songs, you can't even tell when the baton is passed from one singer to the other, the voices flow together so perfectly. Why do Monsters of Folk succeed where so many others have failed? My suspicion is that Jim James is their secret weapon. James has quickly become one of my favorite artists (mostly from his work with My Morning Jacket), and he doesn't disappoint here. I'll be listening to this album this time next year, and beyond.

2. Justin Townes Earle - Midnight At The Movies: It's hard to describe just how good this album is. Don't expect the early day rebellion or latter day politics of his father's work. The younger Earle has definitely paved his own path. The strange thing is his music is more traditional than his father's. Earle and his band make the most of the bluegrass instrumentation and make the music on this album every bit as captivating as the lyrics.

The title track is one of the best written songs I've heard in years, and the cover of "Can't Hardly Wait" may even be better than the original. It's on the song "Mama's Eyes" where Earle shines brightest though. He begins the song explaining that he is "his father's son," which explains many of his flaws including never "knowing when to shut up." However, he goes on to sing "I still see wrong from right, cause I've got my Mama's eyes." Anyone familiar with the Hell-raising exploits of his famous father will definitely understand this song.

1. Jeffrey C. Capps - The Muddy and the Blue: After years as a member of the Memphis band The Central Standards, Jeff has shown he has the talent and the vision to continue to make an impact with his music. The first thing you'll notice when hearing this album is how melodic these songs are. Try listening to the opener "Let The Fever" without it being stuck in your head the rest of the day. However, upon further listening, you'll start to realize the depth in the lyrics. He left Memphis shortly after this album was released, and the excitement of something new and the sadness of leaving the familiar behind definitely influenced this album.

On the song "Sleep Easy," he acknowledges the downside of the city, especially in the line "There's a million lights turned on in a thousand neighborhoods, but when midnight comes around they never seem to do no good." It amazes me how many Memphis references he fits into this album, while never being too literal. He's not touching on the "tourist themes" of Memphis either(Beale Street, Elvis, etc). These songs were written from the perspective of someone who picks up on the day to day things that make Memphis unique. If you've lived in the nighttime flight path of the FedEx planes, as my wife and I did our first summer in Memphis, then the song "47 747's" will strike a chord with you. I've had the album since last spring and I still hear something new almost every time I listen to it.

To me the best track on the album is "Marguerite." The troubled characters in the song combined with the understated instrumentation and harmonies make this one of my favorite songs of the year.

Check this album out on Itunes or Better yet, go see Jeff live if you get the chance. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Favorite Albums of 2009 Continued - #10-6

Here are the next 5 songs from my top 20.

10. Wilco - (The Album): After the very straightforward Sky Blue Sky in 2007, Wilco got a bit more experimental again with this album. Starting with the somewhat comical but deeply infectious "Wilco (The Song)" and containing three of the catchiest tunes Jeff Tweedy has ever written ("One Wing," "You and I," and "I'll Fight"), this album will not disappoint. I saw Wilco at the Orpheum in Memphis this year, and these songs are even better live.

9. Iron & Wine - Around The Well: This double album consists of B-sides, soundtrack songs, and other rarities. The first disc will please fans of the old-school, lo-fi Sam Beam creations, while the second disc will please those who enjoyed The Shepherd's Dog and his collaborations with Calexico. I think "God Made the Automobile" may be my favorite Iron & Wine song, and the rest of the album is almost as excellent. This one doesn't really feel like a B-sides album, but more like two very good proper releases.

8. Patterson Hood - Murdering Oscar: The second solo album from Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood is an excellent collection of new songs that didn't quite fit the Truckers' style. It's easy to understand why Hood decided to release these without the band. While the style is a bit of a departure from his full-time gig, the songs are undeniably Patterson Hood. My personal favorites are "Pollyanna," "Pride of the Yankees," and "Grandaddy."

7. Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses - Roadhouse Sun: The sophomore album from Texan Ryan Bingham may be my favorite road-trip album of 2009. The gritty, roots-rock style of the production fits these songs perfectly. You can almost smell the gravel of a run-down beer joint parking lot when this album is playing. The whole album is outstanding and it includes my favorite song of the year in "Dylan's Hard Rain."

6. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - Self-titled: The second album from former Drive-By Truckers member Jason Isbell is a mostly melancholy affair. There's a lot of regret in these songs. With lines like "I can't make myself do right on Friday night" and "The chairs are up on the bar now, and they're asking me to leave," you can tell Isbell writes from the perspective of a man who feels like he should make a change, but isn't quite ready. Don't get the impression that this album is a depressing affair. Isbell and his bandmate keep things too soulful for that, and you'll be singing along after a couple of listens.

I'll follow up with my top 5 in a couple of days.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Favorite Albums of 2009 (20-11)

Since I am new to the world of blogging, I figured it best to give a little insight to the kind of music that interests me. What better way to do that than share my favorite albums of 2009. I'm not making a case that these are the most important albums of the year. These are just the albums that helped pull me through a year that saw much of the world in a somewhat depressed state (bad economy, Yankees winning the World Series, etc).

So here we go with #20-11. I'll follow up with 10-1 in a few days.

20. Charlie Robison - Beautiful Day: The man who was once married to a Dixie Chick makes an album about dealing with divorce, but surrounds it with music so sunny you don't feel the least bit depressed while listening.

19. Phish - Joy: The closest band we have to a modern day Dead regroup and make their best album in years. Listing to this album takes me back to my high school years when my friends and I would ride around and listen to Billy Breathes and A Live One...this album is almost that good. Try listing to the song "Backwards Down The Number Line" without a smile on your face.

18. Drive-By Truckers - Live From Austin TX: This one would place a lot higher if it actually contained any new music. This set comes packaged with a DVD of the entire concert. Check out the excellent versions of "Let There Be Rock," " The Living Bubba," and " 18 Wheels of Love."

17. Cross Canadian Ragweed - Happiness And All The Other Things: This may not be one of the boys from Oklahoma's best albums, but it had enough stellar songs to keep it on my iPod for most of the year. The version I have includes a bonus track of Cody playing the Willie Nelson classic "Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground" acoustic. This song alone is almost worth the price of the album.

16. Son Volt - American Central Dust: After Uncle Tupelo disbanded in the early 90's, Jay Farrar formed Son Volt and made the excellent album Trace. In all the years since then, this is as close as he's gotten to matching Trace's greatness. After many years of experimenting with new sounds, Jay Farrar finally steered Son Volt back into the realm of pure Alt-Country.

15. Steve Earle - Townes: Mr. Earle takes on his mentor, Townes Van Zandt's songs. While the entire album consists of covers, all the songs are undeniably Steve Earle as he manages to make each song his own. My favorite track on the album is the duet with his son Justin Townes Earle (yes, named after Van Zandt)"Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold."

14. Brad Paisley - American Saturday Night: I'm not much of a mainstream country fan these days, but Paisley is a master of his craft. He is the total package of musician, singer, performer, and songwriter. This is his best album. With songs like the title track and "Water" this was a great album enjoy on those hot southern summer nights.

13. Drive-By Truckers - The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2008): The second Drive-By Truckers album on this list. This album has a few throw-away tracks, but the majority is way above average for a B-Sides album. The cover of Tom Petty's "Rebels" is a personal favorite along with "TVA," "George Jones Talkin Cell Phone Blues," and "The Great Car Dealer War." Too many covers, reworked songs and not enough contributions by band members not named Patterson or this one would be much higher on my list. I can't wait for the new album in March of 2010.

12. Pearl Jam - Backspacer: One of my favorite bands released the most pop-oriented album of their career. Many of my friends don't care for this album because of it's simplicity. It's not their best work, but I think it was the right album for them to make at this stage of their career. I saw an Eddie Vedder quote that said something to the effect of "we've made difficult records, and I'm sure we'll make more difficult records in the future." For this one, they just wanted to rock. Who can blame them for that?

11. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cardinology: In my opinion, this is the strongest album from Adams since Jacksonville City Nights. The songs are more polished than we are used to seeing from him. He stated shortly after this album was released that he would be taking a break from music, presumably to focus on his new wife Mandy Moore. Check out the song "Magick" for one of the best feel good rock songs of the year.