2006 Records To Die For Page 6


Asthmatic Kitty AKR014 (CD). 2005. Sufjan Stevens, prod., eng.; Alan Douches, mastering. ADD. TT: 74:15

I tried to ignore the hype surrounding Sufjan Stevens' ambitious plan to record a tribute album for each of our 50 states. It sounded like some sort of hyperintellectual hipster gimmick. And really: How would he ever make it to 50? I would not make the commitment. Michigan came and went. Illinois arrived and I shrugged my shoulders.

When my stubbornness finally collapsed beneath the recommendation of a music-loving friend, I found Illinois to be an absolutely beautiful mess of UFO sightings, serial killers, architects, blue-collared poets, wars, wasp attacks, and cream of wheat—all in an impossibly seamless state flag of triumphant jazz, wispy folk, silly show tunes, and playful jingles layered with whirlwinds of saxophones, sleigh bells, accordions, vibraphones, high-flying choruses, and undeniable hooks. At 74 minutes, Illinois requires a commitment, but with all of its pleasures, thrills, history, and soul, it's a commitment I'm now happy to make. I plan on going back and visiting Michigan, and I look forward to the 48 states to come.

SILVER JEWS: Tanglewood Numbers
Drag City DC297 (CD). 2005. David Berman, prod.; Mark Nevers, David Henry, engs.; Joe Funderburk, John St. West, mix; Roger Seibel, mastering; Avi Korice, replication. ADD. TT: 34:51

Oh man, this is one heck of a sad-sack, shitfaced, tragicomedy of an album, and I do love it so, so much. Four simple hi-hat hits announce its wobbling entrance before it stumbles on over with tambourines, banjos, sci-fi synths, and jangly guitars. Tanglewood Numbers wraps a heavy arm around your waist and lets loose a beery hiccup: "Where's the paper bag that holds the liquor? / Just in case I feel the need to puke. / If we'd known what it'd take to get here, / Would we have chosen to?"

"Punks in the Beerlight," "I'm Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You," and my favorite, "How Can I Love You If You Won't Lie Down," are littered with this type of poetry, and David Berman's grainy baritone—sometimes weepy, sometimes crazed—is tenderly complemented by wife Cassie Berman's sweet, twangy delivery. The Bermans' perfectly messy, drunken romance is accompanied by an all-star cast of musicians including Stephen Malkmus, Brian Kotzur, Bobby Bare, Jr., Will Oldham, and Paz Lenchantin.


LAURIE ANDERSON: Life on a String
Nonesuch 79539-2 (CD). 2001. Laurie Anderson, Hal Wilner, prods.; Martin Brumbach et al, engs. DDD. TT: 44:24

Intelligent songwriting that is full of wit and pathos and invariably thought-provoking, exceptional and original musicianship, and stunning recording quality—this recent release will join Anderson's Strange Angels (1989) in my front-line library. Led by her synthesizer-violin and supported by music director Skuli Sverrisson's bass, the music is a rich mixture of acoustic and electronic instrumentation spiced up by strong effects processing, and the songs are very varied and full of delightful surprises. Standouts include the infectiously catchy "The Island Where I Come From," the massively percussive "My Compensation," and the whimsical "One Beautiful Evening." There are few weak tracks.

A3: Exile on Coldharbour Lane
Elemental ELM-40CD, 5 023469 004025 (CD). 1997. Matthew Vaughan, prod.; John Wilkinson, eng. DDD? TT: 62:47

A3, formerly known as Alabama 3, has nothing to do with Alabama or 3. The band comes out of Brixton in South London, and had at least eight musicians on stage when I last saw them. Best known for "Woke Up This Morning," used as the theme of the popular TV drama The Sopranos, the band says it plays "acid house country music," which neatly sums up a bizarre but highly effective mixture that includes gospel and Cajun influences. The songwriting is underpinned by wickedly sardonic and irreverent humor, and if the recording quality is largely indifferent, the musicianship is exceptional.


MCA 112399 (CD). 1979/2001. Tom Petty, Jimmy Iovine, prods.; Shelly Yakus, eng.; Greg Calbi, mastering; Joe Gastwirt, remastering. AAD. TT: 36:35

The backs-to-the-wall defiance of the lead track, "Refugee"—the Byrds don leather jackets and get tattoos—is but part of the story of Tom Petty's third record. The album's enduring heft owes to its embarrassment of songwriting riches: the glass-half-full verisimilitude of "Even the Losers," for example, or the twangy gospel-rock of "Louisiana Rain," prefiguring the alt-country movement by a decade. And with the plangent, shimmering "Here Comes My Girl," Petty penned the most perfect celebration of the female species since "Pretty Woman." Listen to him murmur, "Watch 'er walk—mmmm!" between verses: You'll see his gal, all tight jeans 'n' swagger, coming right down the street. Mercy.

Arista 07822-18747-2 (CD). 1996. Malcolm Burn, prod., eng.; Lenny Kaye, prod.; Brian Sperber, eng.; Greg Calbi, mastering. AAD. TT: 55:58

Punk poetess Smith's comeback album was Stereophile's September 1996 Recording of the Month for good reason. It marries primal-scream rock (thumping title track, a howling version of Dylan's "Wicked Messenger") to luminous balladry (ethereal strummer "Beneath the Southern Cross") with uncommon intuition. Recorded in the aftermath of the deaths of Smith's husband and brother, Gone Again is so suffused in feeling that the artist-fan transfer of emotion becomes integral to the listening process. To this day I weep every time Smith sings, against "My Madrigal"†'s backdrop of piano and cello, "We waltzed beneath motionless skies / All heaven's glory turned in your eyes / You pledged me your heart / Til death do us part." (XIX-9, XX-2)


Joe Henry, guitar, vocals; Ornette Coleman, alto sax; Marc Ribot, guitar; Brad Mehldau, piano; David Piltch, Me'shell Ndegeocello, bass; Brian Blade, drums; others
Mammoth 65507-2 (CD). 2001. Joe Henry, Craig Street, prods.; S. Husky Hoskulds, eng. DDD. TT: 58:05

On his eighth album, singer-songwriter-guitarist Joe Henry came in from left field with what was 2001's best jazz vocal performance by a male singer. Here he's reminiscent of Jimmy Scott, his bittersweet delivery marked by clipped and behind-the-beat phrasing, vocal gasps, and slowly drawn soulfulness. Ultimately, Scar is an arresting pop performance, but it's brilliantly steeped in the jazz vibe thanks to the backing of an all-star band that includes drummer Brian Blade, pianist Brad Mehldau, and, remarkably, Ornette Coleman, who dissonantly weeps on alto sax and blows with beautiful ferocity on the hidden track. A highlight is the tango-shaped "Stop," featuring Mehldau and guitarist Marc Ribot.

THELONIOUS MONK/JOHN COLTRANE: Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall
John Coltrane, tenor sax; Thelonious Monk, piano; Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums
Thelonious/Blue Note 3 35173 2 (mono CD). 1957/2005. T.S. Monk, Michael Cuscuna, prods.; Harry Hochberg, orig. eng. AAD. TT: 51:37

It's not only the best jazz album of 2005, but an instant classic. Not bad for a performance recorded live nearly half a century ago. The year was 1957, and both Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane were on the verge of miraculous comebacks. There was scant recorded documentation of Trane's six-month tenure in Monk's band and their keen collaboration until this tape was recently discovered. Having just kicked his heroin addiction, Coltrane buoys in playful clarity—but it's Monk, his cabaret card recently reinstated, who is the hands-down star. He's elated, frolicsome, and, as usual, unpredictably quirky in his leads and comps. (XXVIII-10)


Virgin PCOBOX1 (4 CDs). 1976–2001/2002. Simon Jeffes, prod.; various engs.; Ray Staff, remastering. AAD. TT: 4:03:00

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra essentially existed to play the music of Simon Jeffes (1949–1997). It's hard to categorize, combining baroque elements with a pop sensibility. For a while in the 1980s, the PCO was considered "new age," but don't hold that against the group or Jeffes—the band, above all, was fun. The PCO made Elizabethan virginalist Giles Farnaby rock, and Jeffes created a haunting song out of a telephone busy signal. Add this history's superb sound reproduction to music that always evokes a smile and, yes, I would risk life and limb for the set.

HEARTLESS BASTARDS: Stairs and Elevators
Fat Possum FFP1019 (CD). 2005. No prod. credited; Stephen Girton, Chris Coady, Bruce Watson, engs. DDD. TT: 43:00

Stairs and Elevators may have the worst sound of any disc nominated this year, but I'm not choosing it because it's shiny. Guitarist-vocalist Erika Wennerstrom has a voice that's a force of nature, and she flat-out rocks on her Les Paul, laying out power chords that could crush boulders into pebbles. Backing her are bassist Mike Lamping and drummer Kevin Vaughn—a riddum section as monumental as Sly and Robbie. I choose Heartless Bastards because, single-handedly (sextuple-handedly?), they renewed my belief in the redemptive power of rock'n'roll. "New Resolution" would make a believer out of anyone. Whoooooooeeeeeee!