2008 in Music

This is a list of the music I’ve listened to released originally in 2008.

1. Bill Frisell: History, Mystery (9/10)

There is a part of me that wants to go a little overboard on the acclaim here, and I think the only thing holding me back is something I always nitpick over: some tracks are performed by the full band, and some are not. That’s pretty stupid of me, but I can’t help myself.

So that aside…

This is an incredible instrumental survey – almost a non-narrative or anti-narrative – of numerous genres from the United States and around the world that manages to be blended into one long sometimes-cohesive-sounding musical statement. It’s incredible and I should think it one of the great musical statements of recent jazz – that I have heard – if it were a little more coherent, not just musically but in the sequencing and the performance.

So I guess his reach exceeded his grasp at least a little, but what I have said should not really be taken as criticism. This is a pretty incredible record that touches on practically everything modern jazz has since free sort of ended the tradition – with the notable exception of the most extreme forms of free itself – and that it is almost a coherent musical thought seems really impressive.

2. Man Man: Rabbit Habits (9/10)

Of it’s time, especially in the refrains, and especially on the first half of the album, but they rip off the right people. I’d much rather they rip-off Waits and the Captain instead of most other current sources of inspiration. By connecting with something else, they transcend the limitations of what is otherwise an over-done aesthetic (the current obsession with “danceability”). Naturally, I prefer the ballads. In any case, it’s a great album.

3. The Mars Volta: The Bedlam in Goliath (9/10)

The first album of theirs I’ve heard. It’s growing on me constantly. I like how they use vocal effects in an original way (which is very rare). They know what they’re doing: when they want to get abstract they maintain some semblance of rhythm, or when they want to drastically shift the tempo, they maintain some sense of melody. It’s expertly put together. They have become virtually an instant favourite of mine. It’s also great to hear a band that has no interest in what is trendy, but plays by its own drum.

4. Christinia Petrowska Quilico: Ings (8/10)

A really great and diverse (shockingly diverse) collection of solo piano music. This lady has great taste. Includes the music of Boulez, Gavin Bryars, Henry Cowell, Omar Daniel, David Del Tredici, David Jaeger, Lowell Liebermann, Alexina Louie, Messiaen, Frederic Rzewski, Ann Southam, Masamitus Takahashi, Takemitsu, Art Tatum and Bill Westcott.

5. Fred Eaglesmith: Tinderbox (8/10)

This album is almost Waitsian in some of its arrangements. That’s not to say that Eaglesmith sounds like Waits; he doesn’t. His songs are too traditional, his arrangements feature too many backing vocalists – not to mention other traditional tropes – and his voice obviously doesn’t sound much like Waits. But to me this album has definitely been made in the same world in which Waits’ second part of his career took place. I feel like the producer has studied Waits’ oeuvre and taken the appropriate things. Eaglesmith is still pretty much recognizable as Eaglesmith, bu there is a clear stylistic difference here compared to the his other albums I have heard (mid-90s). And that stylistic difference I have to label Waitsian.

But Eaglesmith maintains his individuality enough that it doesn’t really bother me. I actually think it’s a good thing to mix it up like this.

6. Black Mountain: In the Future (8/10)

Not original at all, but I really don’t care. They rip off the right people. One song sounds remarkably like the Elliott Brood, which is really odd. But the rest of it is like some kind of Hawkwind / Sabbath / Floyd / Amon Duul II hybrid. That’s pretty great, but it’s not in the least bit original.

7. Beck: Modern Guilt (8/10)

Too short, but otherwise I like it. I have this thing with short albums. I can’t help feeling sort of ripped off. But what’s here is good.

8. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Real Emotional Trash (8/10)

The band is really good and that really helps as I think his songs could come off for the worse with weaker musicians behind him. Maybe that sounds obvious but most indie pop-rock bands can’t play this well. It really is the band that makes it. Sometimes I listen to the lyrics and I think, “eww” or something. But the Jicks make everything okay.

9. Listening Party: Who Are We Missing (8/10)

Rootsy enough that I am not put off by the “we’re so indie” vibe the record is drowning in.

9. Ry Cooder: I, Flathead (7/10)

I find this the least effective of Cooder’s new narrative-based records, perhaps because it was the most hastily put together. Something about it just doesn’t connect the way the previous two did. I still think it’s impressive he’s taken this whole thing upon himself and he’s certainly made himself one of the most interesting people in roots music by doing so, but something here doesn’t work. Probably the car thing.

10. TV on the Radio: Dear Science, (7/10)

The things I liked about this band appear to be disappearing. One of the appeals of the overrated RTCM was that it sounded uncompromising. This albums sounds like they want a hit. Not a Top 40 hit, but an indie rock hit. The guitar playing is often way more accessible. The production is too, on the whole (there’s a sample that sounds like it’s stolen from the Cure). And the songs seems more direct, though this could be because of the production. It has its moments but it’s disappointing. For a while I was thinking these guys were the new band to watch.

11. Roy Hargrove Quintet: Earfood (7/10)

Hargrove is significantly more confident – more his own man – and more “modern” – in the sense of “modern jazz” rather than in the sense of modern – on this set than he was in his early days. He certainly takes (relatively) more risks, his band is significantly more out there than in the past, and everything points to Hargrove having a better idea of what he wants to do within the bop tradition than when he first emerged.

But that being said, this is still very much within the bop tradition. And it’s hard to really get what all the critical acclaim was for: I have read reviews that claimed this was the best jazz release of 2008; well that would really depend on what you think jazz is, and what you think jazz artists should be doing. But anyway…

Everyone is in fine form, and this is relatively brave for Hargrove – it’s not as brave as his RH Factor stuff but it’s far braver than the very traditional music he made in the early nineties.

It’s fine stuff. It’s just that it was 2008, not 1968 or 1978, and there are people out there – including many fine trumpeters – who were aware that it was 2008.

But that being said, this is still very much within the bop tradition. And it’s hard to really get what all the critical acclaim was for: I have read reviews that claimed this was the best jazz release of 2008; well that would really depend on what you think jazz is, and what you think jazz artists should be doing. But anyway…

12. Fucked Up: The Chemistry of Common Life (7/10)

I really have to start coming to these hyped albums when they are first out, certainly before I have had a chance a read / hear how great an album or band is a million times (or perhaps before the record wins the Polaris). On first listen I was extremely underwhelmed – maybe not David Comes to Life underwhelmed, but close.

And it really has nothing to do with whether or not this is “punk.” That seems to me to me a really stupid question. Rather, the issues I have with this record stem most likely from being told how great it is far too many times, then being confronted with something that sounds kind of flat given the huge amount of overdubs, and with lyrics that kind of bludgeon me with their message (not to mention their delivery).

Though I applaud the band for not sticking with formulas, some of the stylistic juxtapositions are also rather awkward – particularly some of the lead vocals; they make some songs sound “hard” when they are clearly not in any way.

That being said, there is a lot going on here – perhaps too much – and these folks are undeniably creative. They also manage not to sound like every other post-hardcore band ever – i.e. like At the Drive In – and that’s a pretty great thing in and of itself.

I feel like this record will continue to warm on me, once I have managed to divorce my preconceived notions from what is actually here to hear.

13. Drive-By Truckers: Bright than Creation’s Dark (7/10)

Though I think the very best songs on this album are some of their all-time best and easily better than the peaks on the last outing, on the whole this is just too long and too uneven to match their usual standard. There are a few deviations from their normal sound – one in particular – that feel like they belong on a rarities collection and a few somewhat weak songs that seem like they wouldn’t have made the cut if they weren’t trying to release two vinyl records worth of music.

Still decent for sure, but the weakest of their albums I’ve heard to date, just because of the filler.

14. The Hold Steady: Stay Positive (7/10)

Read the review.

15. Elliott Brood: Mountain Meadows (7/10)

The polish is both a blessing and a curse. They sound better in a way, but it also reveals a lack of songs that I could maybe forgive a little in the debut, because it was a debut.

16. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (7/10)

If Cave is having a midlife crisis (some of his lyrics sound like it), I guess this is part two, and it’s not as good as part one. Grinderman sounded refreshing after so many softer albums. This sounds kind of forced.

17. Deep Dark United: Look at / Look out (7/10)

This appears to be some kind of live album, only there is no crowd noise (save on the final track). At least one song from Ancient is repeated (albeit in a very different version) and there is an introduction that feels like it belongs to a live album (even if, again, there is no crowd response). My guess is that it is one of these fake live albums, like jazz bands often did in the ’50s and ’60s, when they would record live in a studio and pretend it was a club.

But either way, that doesn’t really matter. As with Ancient, this is solid: featuring off beat musical ideas borrowed from jazz and post rock combined with hooks in odd places. It’s like folk pop and pop influenced by free jazz. Or something like that. This direction is still much better than the direction they originally embarked on back in 2001.

18. Sigur Ros: With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly (6/10)

Overdone. Really, I don’t know what they were up to when they made this. It’s all…unnecessary I guess. I consider this a major step back. They do not need the orchestra to sound majestic.

19. Carl Kihlstedt, Matthias Bossi, Dan Rathburn: Ravis and Other Tales for the Stage (6/10)

This is a collection of theatre music for different productions – mostly instrumentals, soundscapes, with one or two songs.

The music itself is engaging and generally the kind of stuff I like. The primary problem is there is no overlying theme. It feels completely scattershot, and that makes sense, given the nature of the collection. It basically feels like an outtakes/rarities collection, even though it is a collection of stuff specifically written for public performance.

So this is only of interest to Sleepytime Gorilla Museum diehards – three of the five members participate. The music isn’t really anything like SGM, but there is a slight similarity in aesthetic.

Anyway, basically a decent collection of stuff, just a little all over the place.

20. Weezer (6/10)

I’m torn on this one.

Part of me wants to hate it as much as Make Believe. This particular self-titled record seems to want to further expand their sound and its beyond their reach. And some of the songs in their traditional sound are just painful.

But, at the same time, I can’t help but enjoy the general silliness of “The Greatest Man that Ever Lived” (mixing a hip hop parody with mock prog rock is kind of brilliant, even if it isn’t exactly perfect) and some of the other reaches are equally entertaining, even if paying too much attention to the lyrics makes me cringe.

I must say that, much like Green Day and Trent Reznor, Cuomo has proven he cannot grow up. And that’s a big problem; probably the main problem keeping this from being consistently as good as its best moments.

But it’s certainly a refreshing, if flawed, embrace of a slightly different aesthetic that makes me feel like they are actually capable of more than just boring, done-to-death power pop.

21. Charlie Haden: Family and Friends: Rambling Boy (5/10)

There is nothing wrong with this album. It’s clear everyone involved in the making of it had a great time, and everyone is very competent, sometimes even very appealing.

But this album doesn’t really do anything for me on any level. I can hear rawer versions of the standards on a very many different records. I get that Haden loved this stuff. That’s great. But these interpretations just don’t move me. Everything is just too damn professional and polished.

22. Bill Frisell: All Hat (5/10)

This is a set that is pretty emblematic with the problems of so many soundtracks as standalone pieces of music. I’m sure it works well in the film – a film i will likely never see in part due to its terrible reputation – but most of the stuff here is feels fragmentary and scene-driven, even though I have never even seen those scenes. Most tracks feel like brief little jams, likely created in response to the feel of a particular scene. And there is nothing wrong with that but there’s nothing great about it either.

And so this is like so many soundtracks: probably quite effective when you are watching a movie but nothing but average mood music when you are listening without the film.

23. My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges (4/10)

I’ve seen them on ACL. I liked what I saw. But I can barely believe this is the same band. Since when did it become cool to worship ’70s pop-rock? The Prince I could understand if they could pull it off, but they’re not that kind of band. The best song here name-drops the Carpenters. That may be all that needs to be said.

Not Ranked:

Compilations, archival releases and new performances of old music.

Lawrence Power, Simon Crawford-Phillips: Hindemith: The Complete Viola Music 1 (9/10)

This disc collects Hindemith’s three viola sonatas with piano accompaniment, and it also includes a transcription for viola and piano of one of the dances from Hindemith’s ballet, Nobilissima Visione. The sequencing is odd: it starts with the final one, then goes to the first, then to the second, then back to the late ‘30s for the ballet transcription. Anyway…

Read the full review.

Memphis Minnie: Complete Blues: Hoodoo Lady (9/10)

Well this is hardly “complete” by any means. I guess perhaps the label means that by owning all their compilations the listener will have a complete picture of the blues. Or it is just a cash grab. I don’t know.

Otherwise this is pretty great. Gives a good idea of her progression from a duo act to a full on band.

The Smith Quartet: The Complete String Quartets of Philip Glass (8/10)

First off, this is no longer ‘complete’ if it ever really was – Glass has apparently written a 6th quartet. (Also, there are other pieces he has written for string quartet that do not appear here, but they are not numbered among his string quartets, apparently.)

Read the full review.

Neil Young: Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 (8/10)

This is a solo acoustic performance from before Young was as famous as he would get. The song selection is good, covering almost all his Springfield materiel, the best stuff from his debut album and some other songs (most notably the title track) that sort of got lost by the wayside.
It’s cool to see Young in this setting and his banter is endearingly goofy and self-effacing.
Good stuff.

Halle: The Dream of Gerontius by Edward Elgar (8/10)

I wouldn’t want my poor ears truly tested – blindly for example – but I feel like I am more and more hearing Elgar in Elgar: this piece is just so Elgar.

In this case though, it’s not a bad thing. I feel like this is markedly superior to the other oratorios and I think it’s quite possibly the best thing I’ve heard of his outside of “Falstaff”.

For once (well, really twice) I feel like the music lives up to its reputation.

Ralf Gothoni, Finlandia Sinfonietta: Piano Concertos in D/F by Joseph Haydn (7/10)

This is a hodgepodge of the 2nd, 6th and 11th concertos for keyboard, all played on a piano (shock horror).

Read the full review.

Quatuor Alcan: String Quartets: Gould; MacMillan (7/10)

This is a decent compilation of Canadian string quartets from the 20th century.

As I have said elsewhere, I like the Gould quartet though I feel like I should be a little less enthusiastic about it.

The MacMillan pieces are fine, but they are typical of most if not all Canadian “classical” music I have heard – it’s obvious that the only reason they are played by anyone is that Canadians are patriotic. Nothing about MacMillan’s pieces would probably be notable if he were British or American, I suspect.

Enjoyable, but nothing special.

Alison Balsam et al.: Trumpet Concertos (7/10)

This is a collection of Classical and Baroque trumpet concerti, and it’s a good selection of these pieces, giving a good idea of how the music progressed…only the sequencing is, um, kind of backwards. Read the rest of the review.

New Symphony Orchestra of London: Witches’ Brew [expanded] (6/10)

This is one of those “Spooky classical” things that is generally entertaining but hardly anything more. Read the review.