[ As per our annual tradition around here, my friend Mike has stopped by to share some of his favorite albums of 2013 with us. Enjoy! -S ]
This was a bizarre year for me. I had to buy a new car and as such could not go to Lollapalooza, and as such was deprived of listening to a bunch of up and coming bands. On the flip side of that, I started listening to a lot of drumstep via Spotify Radio and as such, I’ve introduced myself to all sorts of crazy music acts that way. This year’s list has some familiar faces, the return of an old friend, but more importantly, I have seen every one of these bands live at some point. Here are the:
Seven Albums That Came Out in 2013 That Mike Listened To and Enjoyed the Most
Franz Ferdinand – Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions
After a too long wait, the best thing to come out of Scotland since McEwan’s released a new album. Complete with disco guitar, moving basslines and sweet hooks. The first three tracks on this album are super duper amazing, the rest, the regular type of amazing.
Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions was released August 27 by Domino.
Anamanaguchi – Endless Fantasy
Chip music has its time and place. Mostly in the background of NES games. But Anamanaguchi has somehow managed to pull off a really good album of upbeat poppy chiptunes. Plus, when I saw them live, they created a nerd moshpit. This album is super fun, especially Meow.
Endless Fantasy was released on May 14 by dream.hax.
Man or Astro-Man? – Defcon 5…4…3…2…1
WHAT YOU MEAN MAN OR ASTROMAN? GOT BACK TOGETHER WITH STAR CRUNCH AND WROTE A NEW ALBUM?????!!!! The masters of Surf Punk returned to the living with a rager of an album. Combining the band’s early sound with their later evolution. I could seriously listen to this all day.
Defcon 5…4…3…2…1 was released on June 18 by Chunklet.
The Postelles - …And It Shook Me
When I first saw the Postelles way back at the first Lolla I went to, I thought they were pretty good. A little That Thing You Do-esque, but good. Then after a few years they released this album. Its great poppy rock with a throwback sound.
And It Shook Me was released on April 30 by +1.
The Bloody Beetroots – HIDE
Well, it finally happened. There is a song that Paul McCartney appears on that I like. Also, The Furious is a pretty damn good song. Super kicking myself for not going to see them when they came to Pittsburgh this year.
HIDE was released on September 17 by Ultra.
Mayer Hawthorne – Where Does This Door Go
Every once in a while you wanna slow it down with a good jam… and not like some super sleazy modern day R&B tracks… some good old Hall and Oates style white guy singing r&b jams. Mayer Hawthorne delivers, and yet Robin Thicke somehow still gets more buzz.
Where Does This Door Go was released on July 16 by Republic.
Dream Theater – Dream Theater
I’m always skeptical whenever DT puts out a new album because I typically fall for it right away, think it’s the best thing ever, and then get tired of it 3 months later. I listen to like 3 songs written after SFAM. If their last album was the first step to post-Portnoy awesomeness, this album cements it. Welcome back, Dream Theater. Welcome back.
Dream Theater was released on September 24 by Roadrunner.
Honorable Mentions- The Bloody Seamen – Ahoy, Motherfuckers Camo & Krooked – Zeitgeist White Lies – BIG TV
And of course the Worst album of the year. Millionaires – Tonight
I almsost gave this to Arcade Fire for Reflektor, as I just don’t get what all the hubub about them is about, but every so often I get the title track stuck in my head. So I’m giving this to Millionaires. Yeah, i get it that Millionaires isnt really a serious group and that they just make music that Ke$ha couldn’t sell, but c’mon. At least if you are making juvenile music, make it funny.
People occasionally ask me how I can sit through four concerts from the same artist four nights in a row, or more generally, how there is any artist, anywhere, in any genre, who it’s possible to love so much that I would want to see more than a handful of times, let alone 30+. Even though Bird has been keeping fairly strictly to his setlist this year, and overall has been keeping the show the same from night to night, there is still always something magical about each night. He is a performer who thrives on spontaneity and the thrill of the unknown, and that always manages to shine through, even when the setlist doesn’t vary much.
Bird has a bit more flexibility when he’s flying solo (ugh sorry bird reference), like on night two, but with folk singer-songwriter Tift Merritt back on deck with vocals and guitar, his choices have strayed little from the printed setlists (with much thanks to Mel for snagging setlists all three nights so we could compare). She brings an interesting charm and character to his work, especially given that so many of his songs are heading back to a more stripped-down, rootsy feel. It’s fascinating to watch Bird and Merritt learn to play together, both in a technical aspect as well as with their very different personalities.
The people Bird surrounds himself with musically all tend to come from jazz or experimental backgrounds, and are accustomed to the way Bird plays, because it’s how they all play, too. There’s a bit in the film Andrew Bird: Fever Year where Mike Lewis talks about how his jazz background helped immensely in playing bass for Bird, who oftentimes will change things up on the fly, mid-song, and everyone else just has to keep up. Merritt is still learning Bird’s music and comes from a completely different musical tradition, so she watches him like a hawk (ugh sorry another bird reference) the entire time while they still work on meshing their two different styles together.
And while occasionally, perhaps Jeremy Ylvisaker will pipe up with a witty comment during a full-band show, Bird is usually left to his own devices and his own stilted brand of storytelling. Merritt has a playful, often downright sassy stage presence, and sometimes Bird doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Very rarely does he share a stage with someone who does the whole ‘witty stage banter’ thing, and it’s an interesting thing to see him, at times, at a complete loss for words. I’m interested to see what happens if they keep partnering together musically — I think she challenges him in many different ways, and if his music is going to keep going towards this country vibe, I hope he continues to collaborate with individuals steeped in those traditions.
Tonight is night four of Birdmas in Chicago, so we’ve got one more of these coming your way. To date, I’ve still got all of my toes and fingers. Thanks, hand warmers.
There is a thing that Andrew Bird does, and it is a thing that Andrew Bird has done for a long time, and that thing is covering songs that in their original form might sound strange to our ears.
While it’s the kind of thing I could (and have) rambled on about until the fun’s gone out of it, I think the thing we’d all prefer I do is give you a quick look at the old stuff that Bird’s used on the first three nights of this year’s gezelligheid shows.
(I am going back south of the Mason-Dixon line where I don’t have to wear five layers to stand in line on Michigan Avenue and where mucus doesn’t freeze in my nose. I’m a delicate flower.)
First up is something we’ve seen on Fingerlings 2 but that Bird revisited on Night 2: Charley Patton, “Some Happy Day.”
Next are the Staples Singers; Bird used “Too Close” as a lead-in to “Headsoak” two nights.
And last, finally, is a Carter Family song called “When The World’s On Fire,” played on Nights 1 and 3.
One last note: Bird’s also revisiting the song previously called “You Woke Me Up” — I’ve written about it before — and calling it “Dyin’ Bed,” which has a few sources. (One of them isn’t on YouTube; it’s from an album that Bird recorded very, very early in his career with Jimbo Mathus in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Amazon will let you hear a sample of it here. That’s Mathus on vocal.) As for older recordings, you can compare and contrast yourself: one is Blind Willie Johnson, the other is Bird’s main man Charley Patton.
Be well, Chicago. Other than the miserable cold, it’s been a delight being up here.
I’ve got about an hour to tell you my thoughts on last night’s Gezellegheid shows before I get to go off and meet up with fellow erstwhile blogger Mel to go stand in line for a while. (These write-ups were much easier to manage when I turned Birdmas into a staycation; maybe next year.) Last night saw Bird play a setlist that was significantly the same as the first night, but as usual, he seems to be easing into the shows, loosening up and getting more comfortable as the week progresses.
When you see Bird perform live, you get the sense that he’s channeling something or someone. It’s downright eerie the way his performance shifts and changes, especially as he switches in and out of genres at the drop of a hat. Pure old Delta blues creeps in here; a touch of honky-tonk there; a hair-raising take on a gospel tune there. His music is his own, yes, but he’s got a whole line of musical greats standing up behind him making up his own musical heritage.
It’s never more present than in shows like these, surrounded by the massive, cavernous space of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church. Bird plays to an attentive audience in an historic, unique environment, and performer and audience feed off of each other in a continuous cycle. And Bird’s communion with past and present, the here and the elsewhere, has definitely never been more apparent than in his stark, unadorned belting of a few lines of a Staple Singers tune: “Am I too close to turn around? Am I too close to heaven to turn around?”
Look, I have been to an absurd number of Andrew Bird shows over the years. I have seen him in tiny, 150-person clubs and I have seen him at massive outdoor festivals and, at this point, just about everything in between. (By my best recollection from last year’s calculations, this show was number 31.) Very few times before have I had a jaw-dropping, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-standing-up moment like I did with just those few bars of music. His voice fills the room and calls you to attention with a question that he never quite finds the answer to. We don’t know if he’s too close yet, but we do know that he was walking, could hardly stand; the swimming hour was at hand.
Last night, Andrew Bird was absolutely in sync with whatever it is that drives him. He creates something special here at these shows, and this one was no exception. With the freedom to let the music lead him, Bird digs deep into music traditions older than any of us and brings back something very special and otherworldly for us all to hear. Fitting, then, that we dubbed the pre-show music to be of the “hipster Viking” variety — sometimes droning, sometimes soaring, always eerie and vaguely foreboding. (On night #1, when Bird drew more heavily on Americana, aided by Tift Merritt on vocals and guitar, the pre-show music was from the American Anthology of Folk Music.)
Hey, internet. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve become a bit more of an occasional blogger than anything else, but there’s one very special time of year where I still have thoughts and feelings about music that I need to impart to you, and that’s during what I’ve previously dubbed Birdmas, that delightfully cozy yet brutally cold time of year when Andrew Bird comes to town for the Gezellegheid shows.
The true highlight of these annual shows is that Bird isn’t trying to sell us anything, so he’s free to go a little off-book in what he serves up to us. Granted, he’s always been fairly unorthodox when touring in support of a new album — he engages in monstrous, lengthy tours, sure, but strikes an excellent balance between showcasing the new material and mining his back catalog — but the Gezellegheid shows are something else. Although Bird recently released a mostly-instrumental EP, I Want to See Pulaski at Night, these annual shows are a time for him to experiment, and they’re usually a good indicator of where his sound is going to go in the future. We’ve seen songs grow and change and mature over the years – Break It Yourself‘s “Eyeoneye” mutated over several years of being an instrumental tune called “Oh Baltimore”; “Pulaski at Night” debuted at last year’s Gezellegheid shows — and have gotten very early previews of works that haven’t even completely taken form yet.
This year, with Bird in between major albums and perhaps at a point in his life where he can sit back and be a little retrospective, he’s revisiting older material, and when Bird revisits something, you never quite know what form it’s going to wind up in at the end. ”Darkbreads” is the latest permutation of “Dark Matter” and its predecessor “Sweetbreads”. ”Dear Old Greenland” and “Waiting to Talk”, both Bowl of Fire tunes from 2001′s The Swimming Hour, have both been revised into country-inflected romps, further solidifying the notion that when Bird doesn’t know what direction to go in with his music, he defaults back to Americana. He might be an indie superstar, and he might have classical training, but his real roots are in, well, roots music. While I’m always excited to see what Bird comes up with next — he teased a possible Handsome Family covers album, although whether that’s true or just an off-the-cuff remark remains to be seen — I treasure these moments where he strips back the covers and gets back to basics.
As an aside, a pedantic trivia note from yours truly. Bird played frequent fan favorite “Why?” at the beginning of the show, as he often does (this time complete with mid-song complete-lyric-meltdown), and mentioned that he didn’t think he’d played it before at a Gezellegheid show. That’s not quite true; he did “Why?” during the 2010 run of shows here in Chicago. Sorry, Bird.
We’ve got three more nights of Birdmas, so stay tuned for more thoughts from yours truly.
Hole in the Ocean Floor
Lit from Underneath (instrumental)
Darkbreads (w/ Tift Merritt)
Three White Horses (w/ TM)
Pulaski at Night (w/ TM)
Set Two (all w/ TM)
Dear Old Greenland
Waiting to Talk
Cathedral (Handsome Family cover)
Give it Away
Orpheo Looks Back
If I Needed You (Townes Van Zandt cover)
When the World’s on Fire (Carter Family cover, possibly?; w/ TM)
Well, when there’s an outdoor festival, you’ve always got to expect the unexpected, and for a second year in a row, Forecastle got the unexpected shoved at it. Thanks, weather. But more on that later.
The day started uneventfully enough as I went to see Sarah Jaroszperform. There was quite a sizeable crowd for her, the first act of the day, and many of them in costumes and weird body paint. I consulted my schedule and realized the Flaming Lips were playing that stage later in the day. I spent most of the time, covered in sweat, wondering how these people with face masks and reflective silver capes and wigs and silver body paint weren’t absolutely dying of the heat. Props, y’all. In her early 20s, Jarosz is another artist who makes me feel epically old with how talented and accomplished she is. With a fiddle player and a cellist, she delivered a fantastic set of bluegrass and country tunes, including a cover of a Joanna Newsom song, and mentioned that she’s just wrapped up work on her third album, so hopefully we will have more from her in the future.
Shovels and Rope
After her set, I made my way to the main stage to check out South Carolina-based husband and wife duo Shovels and Rope. Embarrassing factoid time, I picked up their album when I was in Minneapolis last year, and then it promptly went into the pile of “stuff I’ll listen to eventually” and now seven months later, I’d never gotten around to it. Well, don’t I feel dumb, because they were amazing! Take Matt and Kim and swap the synths and indie rock for a great rootsy, rockabilly vibe, and you’ve got Shovels and Rope. The duo, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst swap roles easily, with one on guitar and the other on drums and keyboards. Hearst is a real powerhouse on vocals, and I look forward to seeing more from them… and finally listening to their album.
After their set, I wandered around for a bit, got some food, and tried to figure out how I was going to spend the rest of the day, whenever an announcement came that due to impending inclement weather, the festival was being temporarily evacuated. Last year, there were such severe thunderstorms and torrential downpours that the start of one day of the festival was actually delayed for a few hours. I’m guessing that I just bring bad weather luck to Forecastle. I trudged back to my home base and waited around for a while. No weather materialized and the festival was repoened within about an hour or so. I continued to laze about until later, though, as the midday portion of the fest didn’t have much of interest to me.
I finally wandered back in time to see Freakwater perform. They had a smaller crowd, facing stiff competition from The Alabama Shakes on the main stage, but Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin served up their excellent authentic alt-country. Bean has a vocal style that I would love to aspire to have. Her mouth opens and these amazing, big songs come out. Their set felt natural and heartfelt and comfortable, the kind of stuff that I really connect with. They haven’t released an album in years, but have been working on new material, so I hope to see something else from them soon.
I spend most of the rest of the day wandering about, half-listening to bands, including Nosaj Thingand The Joy Formidable, who I’d actually wanted to see, but didn’t have the energy for battling the crowd at that stage, so listened from afar instead. I made my way back to the main stage in time to catch most of Jim James‘ set, and while I haven’t heard his new album, I will say that this man never appears to get tired. Ever. At all. I don’t think he stood still at all for the 90-minute set. He alternated between vocals, saxophone, and guitar, and was a madman, a whirling dervish of hair and beard and flailing that was to be admired. Towards the end of the set, he slowed things down with a more acoustic section, including his closer, an acoustic cover of “Let It Be”. And while I doubt James knew this when he played the song, the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial had just been released. I was sitting on the lawn, scrolling through tweets from friends of outrage and heartbreak, hearing James softly croon, “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” I don’t know, I don’t aim to inject politics in this post, but it felt poignant, and also sad and troubling at the same time.
Matt and Kim
I debated whether or not I wanted to stick around any longer after James’ set, and aimed to just wander for a bit more when I came across Matt and Kimperforming. And no matter how meh I feel about their music, especially recorded rather than live, they put on such an energetic, non-stop show that I found myself standing there for most of their set. Their enthusiasm and sheer joy at playing is infectious, and the crowd loved their antics. Is it the cleanest, slickest, most intellectually challenging music I heard all day? Nope, but Kim’s huge smile as she pounds away on her drums is worth standing there watching for a while. I’m glad that they’ve never lost that sheer joy of performing.
Coming next: day three, wherein I have a whole lot of tough choices to make in what sets I see.
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