Saturday, January 03, 2015

2014 In Review

2014 was an extremely challenging year for me. 

It started off with some excitement and hope at my job...after spending 2013 doing an extensive amount of work travel, I resolved to travel less and focus on different aspects of the business. I can't go into details yet, but let's just say things did not work out as planned. 

I also suffered a serious physical injury right before my birthday which set back my fitness regime physically and mentally.

The combined effects of those 2 things impacted many of my creative activities. My various bands did not play live last year, my performing limited to playing holiday songs for children a few weeks ago. I did not record any albums this year, making this the 3rd year I did not produce a complete work.

I barely wrote pieces here, primarily due to a sense of pointlessness. I feel the national dialog around serious issues is so polarized it is all but impossible to even have discussion, and so many of the things I would have written about were so bleak it just seemed like an exercise in bumming myself and everyone else out.

The world around us also seemed particularly grim, with disappearing airplanes, increasing income inequality, and the militarized and seemingly out-of-control police forces being the only thing to displace news of the death of beloved friends and public figures.

The awful state of American politics merits a mention, but going much beyond that is too much for me at the moment without more coffee or bourbon or both.

The continuing spread of "gratitude culture" is perhaps an attempt to counter all that darkness, but I found it cloying and superficial.

Despite all that, there were a few real bright spots. Marriage equality seems to be a foregone conclusion nationwide. Marijuana continues its slow roll towards legalization. The Affordable Care Act is still live. I'm sure you can think of a few things.

Even my own year had its high points. I have tried to view my own obstacles as a kind of challenge or training. My physical health is better than I thought it would be. I played music with friends both old and new, and wrote a few songs I'm rather fond and proud of. I goofed off, I slept in, I pushed hard and took it easy.

I had wonderful coffees in the morning. My wife fixed great cocktails in the evening. In between I spent a lot of time with my friends and family, traveled, and had many good experiences.

I suppose they can't all be "the best year ever!" and perhaps we all need some trouble in our lives to remind us exactly how good we have it.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2014 in Music

Here's some music I enjoyed in 2014...

The Really Good Stuff

Lana Del Rey "Ultraviolence" (alternative rock)
 Ms. Del Rey continues to be a polarizing artist, and continues to make records that do not sound like anything else out there, particularly compared to what's on the radio and in the popular ear.

Still pulling influences from suburbia, Bret Easton Ellis, David Lynch, and Douglas Sirk, this record moves further away from hip-hop beats and "electronic" signifiers and more towards "rock" or live musicians.

There's some cool stuff on here. Single "West Coast" features a tempo change (!), something almost unheard-of in modern pop music, a whole grip of musical and textual references, and Lana's signature "bad girl, bad love, good times" vibe. The opener and many of the other tracks are so slow it's practically slowcore, but I love it. Sounds good loud, and even better (as Lana says) if you "get a little bit of bourbon in you, get a little bit suburban, and go crazy."

The Roots "...and then you shoot your cousin" (hip-hop/rap/R&B)
At this point, you can be pretty sure if The Roots make an album, it's going to make this list. "...and then you shoot your cousin" finds The Roots in a very dark place, appropriate for the dark times and injustice of 2014. As the subject matter is heavy, the music continues to become more abstract and adventurous.

This aspect of The Roots is part of why I love them so much. It's difficult to make a killer beat and rhymes. It's even more difficult to make a challenging, abstract, collaged work like this album. A solid, thorough, and complete artistic statement. I wish more bands tried this hard.

Simple Minds "Blood Diamonds [John Foxx & The Maths Remix]" (electronic/rock)
This was my favorite single of the year, with John Foxx & The Maths taking a traditional-sounding late-period Simple Minds track and transforming it into minimalist electro-neon throb.

The lyrics, melody, and vibe hint at Simple Minds looking back on the "Don't You (Forget About Me)" like us...30 years on, older, wiser, and worn. ("Once we were lovers/Once we were purest friends/Once we were blood/Diamonds to the end")

Simple Minds would do well to do a full album in this mode, or perhaps a Jim Kerr solo record. The restraint and simplicity, plus the modern setting, make them seem vital and fresh.

D'Angelo "Black Messiah"

A record rushed out after being cooked long and slow. Much has been made of the topicality, the return of D'Angelo, and even the "all-analog, all-live" recording methods. The results are unique and powerful, if a bit uneven and demanding.

When you can hear the lyrics, they're stinging and potent...but delivered with D'Angelo's silky smooth voice. This can either add or subtract from their power and message. And they're frequently mixed really low. It almost sounds like he's mumbling or doing demos.

The record itself is like a complete and compressed history of soul and R&B. D'Angelo isn't just wearing his influences on his sleeve, they're his whole outfit (or maybe one of Prince's outfits)...and he still pulls it off.

That said, it's a tough listen. There's multiple feels layered throughout -- it's not uncommon to hear a shuffle over a straight beat plus layers of syncopation. And the playing is very loose in spots. That's not a bad thing, but after years of hearing everything super-quantized and the beat clear and defined, it's a little jarring, and at times I felt it just didn't work.

There are many instruments playing many different parts. This is not a "minimal" record by any means. It is occasionally gorgeous, and frequently overstuffed.

I can't say for sure if it's the "all-analog, all-live" approach, but the record is somewhat murky in a bad way. There's a ton of sonic detail in it, but you're not going to hear it in your car. This is a record you need to put on a good system and pay attention to. Again, not a bad thing, but it means that a lot of people (myself included) will take a long time to warm up to this record, and will miss out until they come to the record on the record's terms.

I still haven't given it the listen it deserves.

Bohren und Der Club of Gore "Piano Nights" (lounge)
 This is what Lana Del Rey sounds like after Lana is gone. It's darker, slower, heavier, lighter, slighter, and less exciting. It's still beautiful. David Lynch should work with these guys. They've been doing mostly the same thing for a long time, but something about this record works better than their previous collections.

Loscil "Sea Island" (ambient/electronic)
Loscil has been making themed ambient albums for many years at this point. His work feels quite ethereal, subtle, and increasingly assured. His textures are never abrasive, and "Sea Island" feels more musical (as opposed to pure soundscapes) than many other ambient artists. Very nice. Not far from what he's done before, which is both good and bad I suppose.

Future Sound of London "Environment Five" (ambient/electronic)
Future Sound of London never really went away -- they've been quietly releasing music on their own for a while. "Environment Five" is the conclusion of a series of albums, and it's a surprisingly emotional record about death. I really enjoyed it, particularly the opening and closing tracks.

Hanssen "Seven Years Week" (ambient/electronic)
A record solidly in the "make something like Tangerine Dream on the "Risky Business" soundtrack" tip, Hanssen's album is an easy listen, and good for working. There's one annoying track I always skip ("Real Age") and a few other moments of EDM/rave/dance music influence that weaken things, but I listened to this quite a bit and look forward to hearing his next record.

Harold Budd "Jane 12-21" (ambient)
Harold Budd continues to produce quality work. This is his best album of his post-retirement career, with a variety of textures, a brief running time, and a lovely mood. Unlikely to win converts who aren't familiar with his work, but I listened to this a lot.

The OK Stuff

These records were good, if a little disappointing...
Aphex Twin "Syro" (electronic/glitch)
 Aphex Twin returns from a long hiatus. I wanted to like this more than I did. That's not to say it's bad, but this is Richard D. James operating in his frenetic, hyper mode rather than his ambient mode. It's still very musical, and filled with percussive detail and melodic fragments. I'd rather have "Selected Ambient Works 3", though.

I also got this on vinyl, with download codes for MP3 included. While trendy, this is currently my preferred way to buy music if it's available...but I still get annoyed having to flip the record every 3 songs.

It's great to have Aphex Twin back...I hope to hear more of his melodic, quiet side.

Peter Murphy "Lion" (alternative rock)
Peter Murphy's voice is in fine form, and Youth's production is suitably massive. As is typical for most of Murphy's work, though, what's missing are consistently great songs.

Fennesz "Bécs" (ambient/noise)
Fennesz continues to warp and morph guitars into sounds and shapes only recognizable as "Fennesz". His latest album is not fundamentally different than his other work, except this time around I found it less exciting and enthralling. Some of this was due to more abrasiveness and less ambience, and some to what was once alien becoming more familiar.