Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The year in song

(This wrapup entry has been sitting in draft mode for weeks now, along with mental notes about several concerts I meant to write about over the last couple of months. Time to wrap it all up in ONE EXTREMELY LONG ENTRY and move on with my life.)

Thanksgiving weekend means three things around these parts, beyond the obvious:
1. Happy birthday to my friend Matt.
2. Christmas music can now enter the home rotation. (More on this later, but let me just put in another plug for that new Brian Wilson album one more time.)
3. Time to name the winners of the Ehmke(e) Awards for the past year.

I will spare you the long explanation of what the awards are all about since you can read it in my 2004 post if you really care. Suffice to say that these tremendous honors are not about what I think is the "best" work of the year (I really, truly don't believe in ranking stuff that way, particularly since I like a huge range of stuff all over the musical map that can't easily be compared). No, they're about the music that affected me the most during a given 330-or-so -day period: songs and albums I, er, can't get out of my head. The stuff I will look back on in later years as defining this particular moment in time. Doesn't even have to have been released during the calendar year in question. Got it? Here goes:

SONG OF THE YEAR: a tie... (okay, they're ALL ties this year)
Feist, "Mushaboom"
Animal Collective, "Leaf House"
Matt Pond PA, "Snow Day"

The first has got to be the catchiest, happiest ditty I have heard in a long time. I've never listened closely to the lyrics but I gather it has something to do with domestic bliss in a small town in Canada. Musically, it has everything to do with waking up on a cold but sunny day and being totally okay with whatever it is you have to do, even embracing it. At least that's what I get out of it, and I love it.

The second song is the first one I heard from Animal Collective after hearing about them from Arto Lindsay, and it may still be my favorite. (Although their new album, feels, like Sung Tongs before it, is full of beauts.) No idea what this is "about"--the MP3 blog where I originally found it mentioned something about a cat--but from the opening blast of distortion to the lovely strummed guitar that follows, into the meowing part, it's just genius.

Song number three I heard on the local college radio station and then raced off to the local indie record store to purchase. I felt so ... 1989! It is a perfect gem and I want to write more about the EP it's from at some future date. Just promise me you will devote a portion of your life to Matt Pond until then, okay?

Feist, Let It Die

Words cannot express how much I love this recording and marvel at its diversity. I've heard two different friends say they couldn't make it through the whole thing because "it all sounded the same," and while I normally trust at least one of these people, I think they both need to get their hearing checked. Frankly, if everything here sounded like a variant on the aforementioned "Mushaboom," I could still die a happy man--but my god, you get a nearly a capella murder ballad (with creepy electric guitar), a little Bacharach homage, a radically revamped BeeGees cover, a brilliant Ron Sexsmith tune, a campy French chanson, it's soft pop, it's hard rock, it's multiple shades in between--what the hell do you people want?

Honorable mention: Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs

This only gets "honorable mention" because I was tangentially involved in writing publicity stuff for the album, and that fact may lead you to distrust whatever I have to say about it. As well you should. But try and take my word for it: I would be gushing about this thing even if I didn't get a dime from it. (And a dime is about what I made, since I forgot to invoice anyone, as is my wont.) I'd probably gush even more, in fact. This time I will let the music speak for itself, because I just realized that you can listen to a stream of the whole album right here.

Animal Collective @ Soundlab
Feist/Magic Numbers @ UB's Center for the Arts

I've already raved about two of these artists above, but lemme just say that their live shows managed to transcend their wonderful albums. That Feist murder ballad I mentioned? Lifted to an entirely different level of the stratosphere when performed onstage with an effects pedal and percussion. (One of the references I neglected to drop when trying to describe her up there was the divine Mary Margaret O'Hara, probably because it didn't really sink in until I saw the concert. Feist doesn't quite walk the same tightwire of near-chaos, but like MMOH she has a great voice and a phenomenal band and makes brilliant use of both.) The Animal Collective show was just jaw-droppingly brilliant. I started to write about it here shortly after I saw it back in April, but never managed to finish the entry without frothing at the mouth. Watching these four guys create such unclassifiable music, balancing the bizarre and the irresistible, inspired me more than just about anything else I did all year.

As for the Magic Numbers, what a pleasant, pleasant surprise! I'd heard one passing mention of them somewhere or other that sounded intriguing, but from the very first notes they played, I was sold. And each song was as good as the last, if not better. I have a major soft spot for soft rock of the sixties and seventies, and these guys (two thoroughly charming brother-sister pairs who are way too young to have lived through the era) have got it nailed. But their compositions aren't just easy pastiches; they tend to shift gears midsong, in that grand "Day in the Life"/"Good Vibrations" tradition--which isn't something I normally like--and they pulled it off beautifully.

I feel obliged to point out that the Feist/Magic Numbers show was not supposed to be the main attraction that night; no, the headliner was Bright Eyes, an entity which continues to baffle me and everyone over 25 with whom I have ever discussed him/them. I DON'T GET IT! I could go on and on about this, but today's post is a happy one, so let us not linger on such sour matters. To reward you for reading this far, here is one of my signature crappy cellphone photos of Mr. Eyes and various of his bandmates joining Ms. Feist and her band for a spirited rendition of the Song of the Year:

This was The Year of the Opening Act, if you ask me. Shortly before the BE/F/MN show, I went to a Liz Phair concert at the same venue--not to see Ms. Phair, whose latest incarnation is another mysterious and unpleasant phenomenon about which I could go on and on--but for Matt Pond PA. The Pond boys and girl were in the unpleasant situation of playing to a "crowd" of maybe 50 in a venue that holds a couple thousand, but they totally rose to the occasion, even inviting all of us to join them for a beer after the show. I've got three or four of their albums (though not the latest), love almost every song of theirs I've ever heard, and still I did not know the majority of their setlist, so I was treated to one new find after another. More on them later, as promised.

The night before MPPA/LP, Kathleen Edwards was headlining the Town Ballroom, and I was at least as excited, if not more so, about seeing The Old Sweethearts, whom I'd just witnessed playing a killer set at my friends Susan and Marty's wedding. Alas, we arrived just in time to catch their final chord and the words, "Thank you, goodnight." However, surprise of surprises, there was another opener--Luke Doucet--who blew my socks off. Pressed for time, I'm simply going to describe him as School of Tom Waits (complete with a bitchin' Waits cover) and quite reminiscent of Andrew Bird as well, although he doesn't seem to know the latter. OK, that does NOT do justice to this guy (nor do his studio recordings, from what I've heard of them), so maybe I'll try to say more some other time. I should also note that Ms. Edwards herself was actually quite fine, although I wasn't quite as enamored of her as most of my colleagues in attendance. Here, allow me to share another unfortunate photo:

The real purpose of this particular picture, FYI, was to document the cuteness of the band member standing to her left. (Better pictorial evidence of the entire ensemble can be found in the "photos" section of Edwards' website.) At one point, Edwards explained that she and the boys were in the middle of a tour opening for My Morning Jacket. (In fact, we were the ONLY city where they didn't play together, dammit, and I am punishing MMJ for the slight by omitting their transcendent performance with Wilco in the parking lot of the Albright-Knox this summer from my Concert of the Year list. THAT ought to teach them a lesson they won't soon forget!) The MMJ guys are a hirsute bunch, so Edwards' band decided not to shave for the remainder of the tour, which led to some lovely facial hair displays I enjoyed even more than the show itself. (Sorry, a fetish of mine; we'll get back to music in a minute.) The cutie in the photo was voted Most Likely to Be a Hit with Gay Men, if I remember correctly. Mission accomplished!

One more award, and we're done...

Okay, I know what you're expecting for this one, but I'm gonna pull a fast one and go with...
Death Cab for Cutie
Shocking, isn't it? But this was the band whose many albums (and one well-known side project) occupied the most hours of my listening life this past year, I think. I picked up used copies of 3 early CDs sometime last spring, and have been playing the hell out of Plans for months, too. The voice, the sound, the songs: it's all of a piece. And it's the sound of 2005 for me.

1 comment:

Susan said...

I knew we were friends for a reason!