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Continuing in the vein of yesterday’s post about songs spinning gloom with a grin, I was taken aback this morning when a happy-go-lucky version of “When the Roses Bloom Again” by Mac Wiseman popped up in my “Louvin Brothers Radio” playlist on Pandora.  Although I know it’s an A.P. Carter tune and it’s been covered by plenty of artists since it was written over a hundred years ago,  I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve only heard Wilco’s version, recorded during the Mermaid Avenue sessions with Billy Bragg.

That version — a minor-keyed, dark and mournful arrangement — seems to be the appropriate musical backdrop for the sad tale of a soldier’s departure from his lover and his final moments before dying in battle.  You can imagine my surprise when an upbeat bluegrass arrangement of the song came through the headphones — was this the same song?  How can they sing so happily about something so heart-wrenching?

It’s an absolutely beautiful song.  The lyrics are pure, powerful and poetic.  And it bears such a touching message: that while death is part of the natural order of life, it’s never easy to accept — but having faith that someday we’ll be reunited with our loved ones, in another life or state of being, gives us hope and comfort.  As we yearn to see someone’s face, hear their voice and touch their hand once more, the debilitating grief that weighs heavy on our hearts can slowly be wiped away if we call to mind our memories of a life lived like the song’s characters: faithful, brave and true.

Much like the practice of concealing despondent lyrics with buoyant musical arrangements, we place flowers and other symbols on graves.  Is it because we wish to cover our pain with something colorful, fragrant and radiant?  Or do they stand for something else?  Flowers themselves will bend and fade — but they’ll bloom once more.  So perhaps I’m wrong.  Maybe flowers aren’t something we use to shield sorrow.  They’re not to be used as armor, but for affection, adoration and ardor.  They’re the perfect example of the natural order of life.

They remind us that our wounds can become wings.

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Charlie Louvin: 1927-2011

Another legend has passed.  No doubt music fans worldwide will mourn the loss of Charlie Louvin, whose tunes spawned generations of fans of classic country, gospel, folk, blues and the like.  My first introduction to Louvin actually came through Uncle Tupelo’s take on the Louvin Brothers’ “Atomic Power.”  I was floored when I first heard the song.  That a band could take a song with a pleasant country bounce and play it at a breakneck punk pace — without getting rid of the fiddle — was incredibly eye-opening to me.

I’ll admit that I was more than a little late to the alt-country party; I was about 12 when UT broke up and still immersed in the [dying] grunge and alternative rock records in my older brothers’ collection.  But after hearing a tune with such ominous lyrics masked by a jovial musical arrangement,  I suddenly found myself on a mission to dig deeper into country music lore and find more of those songs of doom and dread.  I’m grateful for the discovery, and sad for the loss of another artist who gave the world a tremendous catalog of music.

*The original, 1952.

*Uncle Tupelo, 1994.

*Charlie Louvin + Jeff Tweedy, 2007.

I heard a lot of new things this year.  Some of it was actually new, some of it was relatively new — and some of it was not new at all.  I hardly listened to any new jazz recordings this year.  And I unearthed quite a bit of stuff that I hadn’t listened to in years, for various reasons.  Without further ado, in no particular order, here’s a list of my 20 favorite new releases from 2010, with a little bit of commentary.  Feel free to tell me about yours!

  1. Blitzen Trapper, Destroyer of the Void — it took a few listens to “get it,” but it quickly became one of my favorites this year.  Sprawling, schizophrenic and sweet.  And that’s only the first (title) track.  But mellower tunes like “The Tree” and “Heaven and Earth” made this disc for me.
  2. The Black Keys, Brothersthe boys from Akron return with nearly an hour of their trademark blues, dragged through the sludge, fuzz and scuzz, with some pop hooks and blue-eyed soul ballads.  Recommended tracks: “Next Girl,” “Tighten Up,” and “Unknown Brother.”
  3. Stornoway, Beachcomber’s Windowsill — perhaps the total polar opposite of their predecessor on this list, Stornoway’s sweet-and-melancholy tunes laced with melodic basslines, touches of organs and chiming acoustic guitars helped me find a little peace when I needed it.  Try “Zorbing,” “I Saw You Blink,” “Watching Birds,” “Fuel Up,” or “We Are the Battery Human” for some variety.
  4. The Dig, Electric Toys — spacey and epic.  “Carry Me Home.”  “I Just Wanna Talk to You.”  How ’bout a website instead of a MySpace page, guys?
  5. Miniature Tigers, Fortress — you too, guys.  The happy, bouncy synth-filled pop of “Gold Skull” made many a morning less dreary.  Once it gets moving, “Rock and Roll Mountain Troll” is another keeper.
  6. Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone — my man Tweedy produced this disc from the soul-gospel legend.  Tweedy’s production is a tad more crisp ‘n clean that I would have liked, but there’s still enough grit and muscle behind the tunes for Mavis to cut loose.  The title track proved to be a poignant reminder for me to hold my ground during a rough end to 2010.
  7. The Gaslight Anthem, American Slang — good rock ‘n roll, great at high volume.  There’s a nice series of videos detailing the making of the album on their website here.  The title track is solid, but if I had to pick one from this disc, it’d be “The Queen of Lower Chelsea.”
  8. Futurebirds, Hampton’s Lullaby — another MySpace page.  But it’s the second coming of early My Morning Jacket.  Listen to “APO” and “Ski Chalet.”  Hope to hear more from these guys soon.
  9. J Roddy Walston and the Business, J Roddy Walston and the Business — perhaps the most fresh, invigorating take on pure rock ‘n roll from this year.  I can’t think of anything new to say other than what I said before.  Play this one LOUD, but “Don’t Break the Needle.”
  10. Robert Randolph and the Family Band, We Walk This Road — the young master of pedal steel teamed up with producer T-Bone Burnett for a walk through history where folk, blues, gospel and soul intersect.  Another lap guitarist, Ben Harper, dropped by to inject some fiery playing and singing on “If I Had My Way.”  It’s been a spiritual year, more so than recent ones.  Maybe that’s why “I Still Belong to Jesus” was my favorite from this disc.
  11. The Soft Pack, The Soft PackAw, c’mon!
  12. Soulive, Rubber Soulive — Beatles tracks filtered through the stinging funk, jazz, soul, R&B and more.  Call it fresh or call it sacrilege, but I dug their treatment of “Eleanor Rigby,” “In My Life,” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
  13. Tift Merritt, See You on the Moon — Ms. Merritt won me over this year when she threw pop, folk, soul and little country into a blender, and came out with tunes as fun as “Mixtape” and as subdued as “Never Talk About It.”  But “Engine to Turn” and “Feel of the World” resonated most, with their messages of loss, longing and hope.
  14. Sun Kil Moon, Admiral Fell Promises — I agree with Mark Kozelek when he said the best thing he purchased this year was a Cervantes guitar.  Knowing my extensive reader base, some of you will be bored to tears with this stuff, and some of you will be sucked into the hypnotic arrangements, droning, double-tracked vocals and deft fingerpicking of “Alesund,” “Third and Seneca,” and “Half Moon Bay.”
  15. Spoon, Transference — Carefully crafted and perfectly executed, Spoon’s work is always fascinating. Cementing their reputation as one of the most consistent bands working today, Transference is filled with dirty hooks, stabs of piano and Britt Daniel’s larynx-shredding vocals.  Try “Written in Reverse.”
  16. Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do — the group’s second disc minus Jason Isbell initially was hit-and-miss for me, but I’ve grown to love this one.  In terms of the current lineup, they’re musically tighter than ever, although this is a little polished – and electric – than the rustic country shuffle of the excellent-but-sprawling Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.  Try on “The Wig He Made Her Wear” for a troubling tale of domestic drama, or for a more swampy vibe, “Drag the Lake Charlie.”
  17. The Hold Steady, Heaven is Whenever — Craig Finn and crew return with another disc about drinkers, dive bars and delinquents, recalling the girl from 2006 track “Chips Ahoy!” in “The Weekenders,” my favorite track from the disc.  Those looking to get their “oh whoah whoah” fix will get it in “Hurricane J.”  And for those fans unsure of the band’s sound or direction without keyboardist Franz Nicolay, the [always] epic closer tells them “this shouldn’t hurt, but you might feel a slight discomfort.”
  18. Gold Motel, Summer House — when it came to bands playing sunny, reverb-drenched pop with a charming frontwoman, I just didn’t latch onto the Best Coast craze, although “Boyfriend” was ok.  I preferred to get my beach fix with Gold Motel’s “We’re on the Run,” “Safe in L.A.” and “Perfect in My Mind.”
  19. Karen Elson, The Ghost Who Walks — with the encouragement of hubby Jack White (the hardest-working man in rock), model Karen Elson stepped out into the light with dark country and folk — and I soaked it up.  I’m still trying to decide if I prefer the title track in acoustic or full-band format.
  20. The Dead Weather, Sea of Cowards — Speaking of Jack White, his second supergroup returned with a follow-up less than a year after they debuted with the outstanding Horehound.  White and Alison Mosshart’s ferocious vocals are only matched by the brutal force behind “Blue Blood Blues,” “Die By the Drop,” and “Gasoline.”

Therapeutic Thumbing

Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I bought some new records.  With a collection formerly in the hundreds, a small figure compared to the collections found in the homes and apartments of the most hardcore audiophiles out in the world, mine, in recent years, has been trimmed down to dozens. But I haven’t added any new selections in at least a few years, and that’s a problem.

Needless to say, it was a sign that I spotted the small roadside advertisement for Second Edition Books yesterday.  If it weren’t the week of Thanksgiving and I didn’t have a full plate – that is, before the one I’ll devour in a few days – I would have at least doubled the amount of time I spent nosing through the milkcrates there stuffed with untold riches in rock, jazz, soul and R&B.

But I had to make quick picks, and I walked away with five new LPs: Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman, The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., The Beatles’ last slice-and-dice American release, Yesterday and Today, and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 album and recent target of a great amount of media attention for its recent reissue.

Mixed in with the recent hoopla about The Beatles’ music finally becoming available in the iTunes store, my time spent sifting through the LPs was extremely satisfying.  It felt as if I was engaging in some great act of defiance by spending my precious time – and money – on music in a less-than-perfect medium, including selections now available in the most pristine quality and heard in the most convenient playback methods.  But the feelings of excitement from yesterday’s purchases run deeper than giving MP3s the bird.

I attribute this mostly to the fact that my father – my original musical taste-maker – passed away two months ago, and one of the best ways for me to commune with him is to play his favorite music, loud, everywhere, and all the time.   I grew up loving what he loved (most of which Mom can’t stand): Zeppelin, The Doors, The Who, Janis Joplin, Dylan, Hendrix.  Dad’s tastes ran like a classic rock radio playlist, but I, like many others, grow tired of hearing it that way.  I want to own the music how he owned it, listen to it how he listened to it, and pass along the same thing to my children – when they’re old enough to be trusted handling an LP and a turntable, of course.

Alternatively, I never knew my father to be a Springsteen fan – in fact, I imagine he probably wasn’t – but songs like “Across the Border” have caused me to shed a tear or two since his passing.  And just last week, I was absolutely wrecked – and moved – by a recent blog post from the masterful sportswriter Joe Posnanski, whose beautiful meditation on fathers, music, life and dreams – centered on the lyrical content of the recent Springsteen reissue – struck a chord deep within me, to use a pun (because Dad appreciated them).

My father’s life was defined by many things: family, fatherhood, friendship, faith, generosity, wisdom, joy and laughter.  Plus he was a star athlete, master chef and a consummate salesman.  I didn’t turn out to be much of an athlete or a salesman, but I’m working on the other things – and I’ve amassed a modest, tasteful collection (if I say so myself) of LPs, and to me, it’s one way of showing Dad that another part of him had worked its way into my persona.

While he was on this earth, the moments that we spun records together were some of the best – it was an experience that I owned; not even my brothers had done so, unless you count whatever children’s albums we might have played in our formative years.  But in those moments – like countless others in my life – I felt the love of a father through our shared appreciation for something that brought us joy.  I still do now.

Gone Surfin’

Can you imagine hearing something like that in 1962?  Whew.  Dick Dale is one bad dude.  Few guitarists can hit you in the gut with the same unrelenting force as Dale’s rapid-fire fretwork while also making you want to dance.

His aggressive attack on the strings – which created a style and tone as recognizable as any other more-appreciated guitar legend – was only complemented by an encyclopedic knowledge of exotic scales, impeccable rhythm, and most importantly, a penchant for loud amplifiers.  Never before has so much reverb and slapback echo sounded so good.

Like many others, I first came across Dale’s work not through the inclusion of “Miserlou” on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack (although it played a part), but in a guitar magazine, to which I had subscribed during my formative years as an amateur guitarist.  I was always transfixed by an image of the older Dick Dale in a black leather jacket and headband, tearing into a gold, upside-down Stratocaster, blasting a thousand blazing notes out of a Fender amp.

I could only hope to practice hard enough to be able to play tunes at his tempo and clarity, but found myself mangling guitar strings, rather than making them sing.  Maybe that’s why I developed into more of an acoustic, fingerstyle player.  But my appetite for crushingly loud guitars will always remain.

Yet another Dale compilation just landed on shelves, or digital, depending on where you shop. Guitar Legend: The Very Best of Dick Dale, a 16-track collection from Shout! Factory, is streaming this week over at Spinner.  If you listen, be sure to do it at full volume.

And for more Dale goodness:

After a hellish commute earlier this week that was accompanied by the dark, ominous rumbling of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, this morning’s concrete cruise down I-95 was breezy, cool and nothin’ but a party.

I work at a University.  Upwards of 40,000 students have returned to town.  Having felt nostalgic all week, I flipped through the pages of my bulky black vinyl booklet that houses 300+ round silver discs of dying (or dead?) media, searching for something that would take me back a few years.  And then it appeared – a burned copy of Beck’s Guero.

Suddenly it was 2005 and I was sitting in a cubicle at an advertising agency in downtown Kansas City, an intern in the media planning department, drying out my eyes staring at Excel spreadsheets and playing the part of an order of fries from Sonic (the agency’s biggest client) in a company PR video to impress the client’s new marketing VP.

It’s funny – most of the record consists of Beck’s hip-pop/rock hybrid – bouncy, groovy tunes that owe as much to folk as they do to funk.  It’s appropriate for a party.  Not for an office.  But it was that record that stayed in rotation for the duration of an entire summer, its uptempo songs proving to be the perfect polar opposite of the oft-languid pace of a day at the office.

Don’t get me wrong – those days at Barkley were great.  My supervisor was only a year older, having returned to accept a full-time position within the agency after interning the previous year.  We had some good times.

[Sidebar: it’s ironic now to recall how he couldn’t stop talking about Wilco, a musical suggestion I shrugged off at the time…]

Back to Guero: the Nintendo-esque synthesizers in “Girl” were essentially the sonic [ah!] equivalent of the computations and formulas I waded through all day in Excel, while tracks like “E-Pro” and “Qué Onda Guero” were excellent soundtracks to the mid-day stretch and shuffle, giving me a few minutes to stand up, shake my legs, get the blood movin’ and cut a rug in a cubicle.

I must’ve listened to it at least twice a day, if not more.  I simply couldn’t find a better aural assistant, with the exception of the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, which was my other vice.  They were an odd pairing, yet worked so perfectly together to propel the day forward and break up the monotony that sometimes plagued the day.

I didn’t listen to much of anything else that summer – of course, that’s also due to the fact that my precious CDs were robbed out of my car in the middle of the day – and then returned to me weeks later.  That’s another story.

I was 12 when Beck’s breakthrough hit, “Loser,” was omnipresent on the airwaves.  My older brother had the cassette single.  And there was his full-album breakthrough, Odelay.  Everyone had two turntables, a microphone and a devil’s haircut.  That’s the Beck that many know, love and appreciate.  Others are drawn to his post-breakup, largely acoustic and horribly depressing Sea Change, which yielded a few choice tracks and showcased some singing chops, but was such a far cry from the Beck that shakes walls and shatters speakers.

For me, Guero is attached to a time and place which hold many great memories, yet I’m pleased that those days are behind me.  I’m still connected to a cubicle 40 hours a week and find solace in my headphones, whether I’m falling back on old faithfuls or digging for new tunes.  In this case, to many, Beck is simply a speck from an oh-so-distant musical period – but this morning, his record was still fresh, exhilarating and exactly what I needed to hear.

Red Eyes and Tears

This morning I was overwhelmed with gripping anxiety, aching urgency and maddening impatience during a horrendous commute.  It was only compounded by the buzzing drones and swirling distortion in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s “Red Eyes and Tears,” which blasted through my car stereo with commanding force.  The panic-inducing sonic assault caused my lower back to wrench and squirm with tension.

As I sat helpless, unable to escape the pavement prison of usual mid-Atlantic standards, my mind flashed back to the first time I heard the track.  I was instantly transported back to college, washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen, watching the manic antics of my fellow dishwasher as he tossed aside the industrial-strength wash hose to strike a rock star pose.

In a jerky motion, he planted a straight leg in front of his body, his wet sneakers hitting the rubber floor mats with a thick splat. Lifting his arms up to play air guitar, his fingers perfectly synchronized with the gnarled, twisted riff  that gives the chorus of the tune its eerie, dark tone.

Suddenly I snapped out of my morningmare as the red glare of the brake lights in front of me disappeared, and the sad row of vehicles slowly began to inch towards the next stoplight.  With a deep exhale I banished the suspense from the inside of my car and pushed “>>” on the stereo face to find “Salvation” at the end of the disc.

Maybe I should’ve picked something quieter for the drive this morning.