2004 in Music

This page features all my reviews of music originally released in 2004.

1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus (10/10)

Maybe their best album(s). The equal of Tender Prey, certainly. And the first record of theirs in a few years to sound more like the Bad Sees of old (which, in this case, is a good thing). I know this is supposed to be two albums, but I can’t think of it that way. It marries everything together: their older, louder style, with the newer softer stuff. My favourite album of theirs, anyway.

2. Wilco: A Ghost is Born (9/10)

This album takes Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to new, dictatorial extremes – Tweedy indulges his fantasies (as lead guitarist, as electronic composer) and you’d think the album would suffer for it. But it doesn’t: Tweedy remains one of the best – if more idiosyncratic – songwriters within the realm of pop rock, and the new indulgences feel like real growth from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, if only because the band feels like it is treading new ground after an album that felt like it tread so much new ground there was nowhere else to go. This is among my favourite of their albums, and it represents the (studio) apex of Tweedy’s career as a guitarist.

3. Secret Chiefs 3: Book of Horizons (9/10)

Trey Spruance can do whatever he wants.

Yes, this is certainly more scattershot / inconsistent-tonally than their earliest efforts, if only because of the concept of different bands playing different styles. And yes, the concept doesn’t quite hold up.

But so what? As usual, Spruance shows that nobody can really hold a candle to him in the genre-hopping “genre.” He can do anything. And, well. he continues to blow my mind.

If I had any kind of musical talent, this is what I would be doing with my life too.

4. Bjork: Medulla (9/10)

Bjork’s a capella album: there is a strong part of me that wishes Bjork would have had the guts to go completely a capella on this record, but I really think that is being unnecessarily critical. (There are a few instruments used here and there.) This is a marvelous accomplishment, featuring perhaps Bjork’s bravest ideas (to date) and full of interesting collaborations. It is all the more remarkable for containing a song that could have been (should have been?) a hit, mostly powered by the human voice. A near-classic. Really worth seeking out even if you are not the world’s biggest Bjork fan.

5. Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant: Sister Phantom Owl Fish (9/10)

His guitarist, Halvorsen, is amazing. I haven’t heard anyone like her. The music is also pretty path breaking (to my knowledge). At times it could be called “jazz metal.” A really strong set that makes me wish this band had stayed together longer.

January 2015: This is the record where I fell in love with Halvorsen…

6. Acoustic Ladyland: Camouflage (9/10)

Coming at an artists backwards is always a big of an issue. Not only as it’s sort of unfair to the artist – we get our notions of what the artist sounds like when they are “mature” and try to apply that to their early work – but also as it’s unfair to the listener, often, because we don’t have a chance to grow with the artist, to learn from whatever journey they’re on. For example, I had no idea Acoustic Ladyland actually started out as an acoustic band performing Hendrix covers. I mean, I did know that intellectually, but I wasn’t prepared for it, because all I knew of them was the sort of alternative rock / jazz fusion thing they did a little later.

Read the rest of the review.

7. TV on the Radio: Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes (8/10)

Whereas most groups were content to just imitate post-punk, at least these guys mix in doo wop and other styles. That makes them worthwhile.

January 2015: This was the first time I felt like I had actually heard a new new wave / post post punk actually contributing something new to music. I can’t tell you how exciting it was at the time. I probably like this record even more now than I did at the time, though I do feel like Return to Cookie Mountain is a significantly more mature musical statement, even if this still has a stronger emotional appeal on my ears.

8. Valley of the Giants (8/10)

This odd, idiosyncratic and perhaps even inconsistent album by Canada’s first (?) post rock super-group was my gateway into the wonderful genre, leading me to so much more interesting music. It’s not that music here isn’t interesting – obviously it is – but it covers far more territory and strikes me, in retrospect, as being far more conventional than some of the music made by some of the associated bands.

That being said, there are few records I can think of that do such a good job of establishing differing senses of place, from song to song. And “Whale Song” is like nothing else you will ever hear.

9. Drive-By Truckers: The Dirty South (8/10)

Less ambitious than Southern Rock Opera and, I think, for the most part, a better set of songs (and without the exposition). (Though, I should note, my absolute favourite DBT song is on Southern Rock Opera.) Probably my favourite DBT record and the one I would recommend most to anyone who hasn’t given them a listen yet.

10. Iron and Wine: Our Endless Numbered Days (8/10)

January 2015: I struggled with the catchiness of this record for so long and I don’t really know why. I guess I just felt guilty liking it so much when I was supposedly above hooks and was supposedly into much more thoughtful music, or whatever my 23-year-old-self mistakenly believed.

This is a very solid set of songs with unique-enough arrangements (and enough warts) that the overall melodicism of the entire thing doesn’t feel as obvious as it should. Really don’t know why I struggled with it for so long.

11. Dave Douglas featuring Bill Frissell: Strange Liberation (8/10)

This is a very solid “post-fusion” album, you might say. I say post-fusion because this is mainstream jazz that has been made in the awareness of fusion – and free to some extent, as well – but it is hardly readily identifiable as fusion. Everything here is great: the tunes, the playing, the moods.

The one problem is that it isn’t exactly new.

12. Fantomas: Delirium Cordia (8/10)

After creating the definitive movie theme song covers album, Patton tries to write a whole soundtrack…but it’s to a surgery?
Despite the rather inaccessible nature of their debut, this is probably the least accessible Fantomas album, given that it’s a single track, given the premise, and given the music. But you are rarely going to hear something this challenging and thought-provoking from someone who used to be the lead singer of a world famous rock band.

And if you give it the time it deserves, it’s certainly a good piece of music. It’s not a pleasant piece of music, but it’s a complex, well-thought out piece of music.

Also, it doesn’t really sound like Fantomas.

13. Augusta Read Thomas: Silver Chants the Litanies (8/10)

This is basically a horn concerto. I am totally unfamiliar with the state of the horn concerto in the 21st century, but this feels like a very horn-centric composition that really covers a lot of the “modern creative” ground. The weird dueling horn thing is not something I’m familiar with, and I think that’s a nice touche.

14. Oliver Schroer: Camino (8/10)

A fascinating mixture of solo pieces and found sounds composed and recorded as Schroer followed a traditional pilgrimage route. Interesting and original programme music at a time when so little of it is being made any more.

15. Charlie Hunter Trio: Friends Seen and Unseen (7/10)

This band plays pretty traditional jazz for the 21st century – sure, there hints of more radical stuff, including odd syncopation and some relatively out playing by Ellis. But, for the most part, this is pretty mainstream jazz., primarily rooted in the blues. What makes it more interesting is Hunter, who is a phenomenal player who manages to play both bass and rhythm or lead at the same time (on his custom guitar). Ellis’ range of instruments also helps create a wider variety of experiences for us.

So this is basically just above average mainstream jazz. It’s good, but it’s certainly not exceptional, despite Hunter’s exceptional playing.

16. Deep Dark United: Ancient (7/10)

This is a shock coming after their debut. Where their debut lacked songs, felt like a brain-dump with no editing, opted for some pretty cliche sounds in the production department and generally seemed to try to hide what competent musicianship existed, this is the opposite.

This sounds like a band this time out, rather than some people tinkering around in the studio with their friends. And they actually sound like they can play all of the time. And there are some actual songs written (more than two).

The lyrics are still often pretty cringe-worthy, but on the whole this is leaps and bounds – hell I can’t even put it into words – better than their debut.

17. Mike Watt: The Second Man’s Middle Stand (7/10)

Watt’s second album is an interesting thing: a guitarless trio playing what I guess you could call post-hardcore rock and roll with lyrics that often seem almost country. I’m not sure if that description sums it up. Idiosyncratic might do a better job.

The musicianship is excellent – this is Watt after all, perhaps the best bass player to emerge from the various American punk scenes of the ’80s – and the arrangements are consistently interesting. The songs aren’t the most compelling despite, or perhaps because of, their idiosyncratic nature.

It’s certainly a unique beast.

18. Stars: Set Yourself on Fire (7/10)

I have a real problem rating these guys. You see, I saw them live before I ever heard their music. And well, if you like live music, I’m not sure you want to see Stars.

Read the review.

19. My Chemical Romance: Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge (7/10)

Totally over the top, totally histrionic… and that’s okay. I mean, that’s sort of why it’s not shitty. There could be some terrible emo balladry here and there really isn’t any. Instead there’s just immediacy. It’s short, it’s “sweet” (kidding). It’s enjoyable. It’s not At the Drive-In, but what could be?

It would help if the guitarist could play things other than arena rock cliches when he decides to solo or fill, but whatever.

20. Converge: You Fail Me (6/10)

So I like this a lot but I really don’t know if I can rate it higher than this.

For one thing, like so many bands of this ilk, when they play a slow song you discover nobody knows how to sing.

21. The Von Bondies: Pawn Shoppe Heart (6/10)

I heard the single from Pawn Shoppe Heart way back when and thought nothing of it.

But I must say this is very solid stuff: the songwriting is above average (for this genre), the band is full of energy, the singer reminds me of someone I can’t quite place (that’s a good thing, because if I could place him, I’d probably be annoyed).

Very solid.

22. Fly Pan Am: N’ecoutez Pas (6/10)

I feel like they really are on to something on the first track, like some kind of unholy mixture of post-hardcore and Stereolab. But the second track – and all future noise fillers on the album – is just pseudo avant garde nonsense; honestly people have been making “music” like that since at least mid-’70s (and likely the 1950s). “Autant zig-zag” is, I guess, a little closer to what I thought I would be getting; like a more directionless GY!BE without the chamber influence and with more of a not so obvious pop – or at least Krautrock – influence, but which then goes the route of “noise rock” without the rock.

And I guess that sums it up: there’s lots of Krautrock via Stereolab here, but with a decidedly less poppy aesthetic and there is a clear desire to alienate lots of people that comes from somewhere, perhaps the earlier “industrial” bands like Throbbing Gristle. And that combination, though fairly unique, isn’t quite as seamless as I think it should be.

There are the “hits” and there are the noisy fillers and really shouldn’t the two be together?

23. Bruno Coulais: Les choristes (Motion Picture Soundtrack) (6/10)

Years ago I saw a film he scored and evidently I liked his music enough that I wrote his name down. I can’t say that I remember what film, but it wasn’t this one.

This isn’t exactly my kind of “art” music but it has an insistent quality that makes me want to keep listening. I like it more the more I listen to it, even though at first I was a little disappointed.

But at the same time it is hard to recommend it to English listeners as a piece of music, as it has a little too much of a “soundtrack” feel to it (there is French dialogue from the film).

So I’m torn.

24. Rise Against: Siren Song of the Counter Culture (6/10)

This has all been done before, many many times. And of course it’s somewhat hilarious when they do this done-before thing for Geffen.

But, that being said, it’s effective for what it is, except you know when suddenly they forget they are a hardcore band. Can’t really say too much bad about it.

I’d still much rather listen to the people who invented this stuff instead.

25. Blonde Redhead: Misery is a Butterfly (6/10)

In nearly every case that people complain about a singer’s voice, I don’t understand. But this is the one band where I totally get it: I don’t think these people should sing. And that makes everything else kind of hard to accept.

But the music is fine – very capable Indie Pop. Not my thing, but competent and well done, if you can ignore the vocals.

26. Nightwish: Once (6/10)

Can’t say I’ve ever heard this “symphonic metal” thing before. It isn’t very metal, really, but whatever.

It’s extraordinarily ambitious, fairly overproduced and full of too many ideas. And part of that is pretty cool (not the over the top production). It’s super melodic and lacks anything in the way of memorable guitar solos (I think there is like one guitar solo). Keyboards dominate and they aren’t even great keyboards (would it kill some of these guys to discover an organ or something? Jesus). But honestly, even though I sort of want to hate it for being overly catchy and not particularly metal I have to at least respect the ambition of putting (faux?) native American music in one song and tons of (not that originally orchestrated) strings, horns and winds in many of the other songs. And the chick can sing. So yeah, it’s alright.

27. Bill Frisell: Unspeakable (5/10)

I think there is a real tendency to look at a few of the moments on this disc – when Frisell really lets loose in the ways he can – and decide that this is some kind of return to form – for those people who do not enjoy his Americana obsession.

My problem isn’t with his playing – though occasionally he does play it too straight – it’s more with the music surrounding his playing. I’m all for artists taking risks and this is a real curve ball given the kind of music he had mostly been making over the last decade and a half, but if you don’t like ’70s soul and R&B, chances are you are not going to like this.

Maybe that’s the thing I’ve been missing with much of his other work: some people likely don’t enjoy it because they don’t like all the folk and country influences. And maybe they were happy to see influences they enjoy. Perhaps that is why this album is so acclaimed.

But have we not heard this kind of soul jazz a million times already? I don’t know; grooves don’t really do it for me. I’d rather listen pretty much his entire catalogue over and over rather than hear this again.

Boring and really, really overrated.

28. Velvet Revolver: Contraband (5/10)

I remember the instant hipster derision when this came out. Specifically, I remember watching the lead single’s video, and a friend of mine – a hipster if memory serves – was nearly apoplectic when Slash stepped forward to play the solo. Apparently such a longstanding expression of “rock” authenticity was just totally uncool, at least at that moment in time.

Read the long review.

29. Otep: House of Secrets (5/10)

Not having heard the debut album, where she apparently rapped, I can’t say what exactly about this is supposed to be nu metal – though I’m hardly a nu metal expert. To me it sounds more like what I might call emo metal, way to metal to be emo, but way to artsy fartsy to be straight up metal. Also, it’s significantly more hardcore (or rather metalcore, yuk yuk yuk) than most nu metal I’ve heard.

The relatively straight-forward metal is made less enjoyable by the sheer ponderousness and pretension of the concept, which makes me wish that some people just weren’t aware that it was cool to mix art with rock music, because some people sure don’t do it well.

That being said, at least there’s ambitious behind it.

30. The Tea Party: Seven Circles (3/10)

Though hardly the most original band ever, the Tea Party are clearly extraordinarily talented musicians (if not much else). Their second album, The Edges of Twilight, boasts as many instruments as you can possibly imagine on a mid-90s rock album. And though they were never original (and they stole a little too much) they were at least remotely interesting in their desire to be so out of touch with the rest of the musical world of the early ’90s.

So its sad to see what has happened. Yes, there were hints of their descent on their last album, but there were still remnants of the old band. The primary problem with the last album I think – aside from the usual lack of songwriting – was the production: generally geared towards getting on the radio thereby eradicating any attempts to sound interesting.

But here it is so much worse. Someone on RYM said they sound like Nickelback; that guy isn’t lying. Aside from a riff that sounds like it was ripped off of Rage Against the Machine – but it is so clean that it is almost unrecognizable – this sounds pretty much exactly like Nickelback and every other band that tries to make big, dumb rock in the 2000s.

There’s so little left of the former band that I would be tempted to wager it wasn’t them; I’d be tempted to believe it was some other Jeff Martin project, where he had gone insane with greed (and love of Creed).

Just absolutely putrid shit.

Not Ranked:

Compilations, archival releases and new performances of old music.

The King’s Singers: Tenebrae responsories for Maundy Thursday by Carlo Gesualdo (9/10)

How we remember the past is always fascinating. They say the winners write history and that’s fine when it comes to political violence, but how relevant is that to art? Why exactly was Gesualdo forgotten for a couple centuries?

Read the full review.

Friedhelm Flamme: Complete Organ Works by Maurice Durufle (9/10)

Great stuff. Read the review.

Benny Carter: The Music Master (8/10)

First, a disclaimer: my library only has the last three discs so I am not reviewing the first disc.

Though this music (at least the music on the second and third discs) is not really my thing, I find myself becoming a big admirer of Mr. Carter. He appears to have mastered three separate instruments as whether he is playing sax, trumpet or clarinet one beli3ves they are hearing a definitive soloist of his era. The music on the final disc is slightly more my style and here Carter is more middle of the road as there were so many players making leaps and bounds at that time which he doesn’t really follow. But the whole collection is fascinating as history and music, to hear him change his styles rather drastically from traditional big band to early bop, and to hear him play on the three different instruments.

Arditti String Quartet: String Quartets I-III; Pan by Mauricio Kagel (8/10)

Read the review.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard with Susan Graham: Concord Sonata; Songs by Charles Ives (8/10)

This is one of those discs that pairs two different types of music and so, right off the bat, kind of annoys me. Ives has plenty of songs to release a whole disc (or many discs) of them, without instrumental music. (For example, one of his collections is called 114  Songs.) And he’s got plenty of piano music to do the same. I know this is something I need to get over, but I don’t fully understand the reason to program like this. But despite myself, I really enjoy this collection. It pairs excellent music together (and maybe that’s the rationale behind it), even if that music doesn’t quite fit together.

Read the rest of the review.

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa: Symphony No. 3, ‘Liturgique’ / Pacific 231 / Rugby et al. by Arthur Honegger (7/10)

This is a collection of some of Honegger’s works, pairing his three most famous pieces – the “symphonic movements” with one of his symphonies and a symphonic poem.

Read the review.

Various Artists: Cesar Franck: [Symphonic Poems] (6/10)

This is a survey of most of Franck’s ‘symphonic poems’ (or single movement orchestral pieces), though not quite all of them, performed by two separate orchestras. So right off the bat, before even getting to the actual music, I am sort of wondering why choose this recording over some others. (If you want to know why I listened to this recording over others it’s because this is what Toronto’s library system has available for Franck.) All but one performance is by Orchestre du Paris, conducted by Barenboim, in 1976. The other one is a different orchestra with a different conductor in 1967. I understand that sometimes we can’t get good recordings of all of a given composer’s work in one genre by one set of musicians – and thankfully these recordings at least sound good – but it does seem odd to me that there’s just the one missing. I mean, if Barenboim and the Paris orchestra didn’t record “Les √Čolides”, maybe they recorded another of the omitted ‘poems’? I don’t know.

But that’s the other thing: if you’re going to give us different performers at least maybe try to complete the cycle. But that didn’t happen either.

So certainly for people looking for Franck’s symphonic poems, or for someone looking for consistency of interpretation and performance, this isn’t the place to start.

But let’s stop with my nitpicking. What’s the music like?

It’s reasonably effective late-romantic music that may or may not convey the source material (I am not familiar with it, that I know of). It’s certainly less gaudy than a lot of the contemporary French music, and for that I must say I am happy. But it hasn’t really grabbed me so far and I do generally prefer even later romantic music from France, and even more those who basically killed the romantic tradition in France (Debussy, Ravel, etc) to this kind of thing. And really I am more interested in his organ music, because he was the organ player of the era. But it’s not bad.

NOFX: The Greatest Songs Ever Written (by Us) (5/10)

When I was a little more musically naive I used to believe that NOFX were preserving something, let’s call it the ‘essence of punk’ or something silly like that. I didn’t believe this because I listened to them, but rather because the guys I knew who were into punk (I wasn’t really into punk at the time, except for the Clash) all liked them and seemed to think they were one of the few real punk bands around.

Ten years or so later, I certainly think the idea of an essence to punk (or any other genre) is relatively silly, or at least way too difficult to define. But if there is something like that I can’t really find it here. NOFX are relatively raw, energetic, catchy and political – though it is often hard to tell when the tongue is in cheek and when it isn’t – and so in that sense I guess they are preserving the original punk movement.

But I am a big believer in evolution, or at least in the revising – and revitalizing – of traditions and NOFX clearly don’t agree. This comp – which suffers from the usual comp faults which I have detailed elsewhere – gives us a really good summary of why NOFX might have been a pretty cool band in the late ’70s but in the ’90s and ’00s it’s hard to make a big deal out of them.

I’m sure it’s better under the influence, but listening to it sober I can’t help but wonder why these guys don’t just grow up already. (I will say, though, that they at least can play a little more than Greenday, so good for them.)

David Daniels et al: Berlioz: Les nuits d’ete; Faure; Ravel (4/10)

I have always sort of been annoyed by our collective obsession with vocalists. The human voice is indeed a powerful instrument, but it is hardly the only instrument out there. And I always am mystified when I see releases credited to vocalists when that vocalist isn’t even present on every track.

Read the review.