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I mentioned in a teaser at the end of the last post a significant musical discovery. I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while because each time I start to write it ending up listening to something new by the artist in question and falling in love and wanting to include that. So, instead I will try to make this simple.

Starting where I did: looking for a copy of the Nick Lowe version of “Indoor Fireworks” I got a collection of Elvis Costello covers. One of the immediate standouts was Christy Moore’s version of “The Deportees Club.” The song has been a favorite Elvis Costello track of mine since hearing the acoustic version included as a bonus track on the Goodbye Cruel World re-issue. It’s clever and tart without the level of vitriol which can sometimes be off-putting in Elvis Costello, and the line, “all my troubles I confess to another faceless backless dress” is great.

As Elvis Costello says in the liner notes Christy Moore brings a nice sweetness and humanity to the song. The self-destructiveness in the original is pushed towards weariness instead. The feeling of missed opportunities in the song is sung as more a reflection on the human condition rather than a grievance.

I happily included the song on a mix CD that I was working on at the time. Then I started to look up Christy Moore and figure out who he was and the more I found out the more surprised I was that I hadn’t heard of him before. He’s a legend of Irish music who’s been recording regularly since the 70s and does almost exactly the sort of music that I like, Listening to a handful of his albums he’s even better than I would have expected (with the caveat that, as far as I can tell from reviews, it looks like the tried to go in more of a pop direction in the nineties which doesn’t sound like a good choice). On any given album there are at least a couple of songs which are as good as you could possibly ask for. He’s a fantastic singer and really consistently attentive to the meaning of songs. The thing that is remarkable is, often, how much weight and thought he will give to every line in a song. He’s unusually good at being able to locate the emotional core of a song and then communicate that and embody that in his delivery.

I have several songs of his that I hope to write about at some point but I will close by just pointing to a version of the most recent song of his that I’ve heard and fallen in love with. This one was recommended by RS and comes from his time with Planxty, a group that did traditional Irish music, has a great reputation but didn’t last that long before splitting up to work on individual projects. Looking at AMG I see they released three albums in 73-74, then a pause and two more albums in 79-80. I admit, hearing all of that I was a little bit suspicious. I’ve been dissapointed before by some of the pioneering British folk crossover groups like Steeley Span or Sandy Denny. They’re good, but listening to them I feel like the battles they were fighting are not the ones that I’m interested in. I feel like Steeley Span was trying to do folk music with the energy of pop music, which is a good thing, but, at the same time, it was a new enough idea that they didn’t completely trust that there was an audience for it, and it ends up sounds very stiff to my ears — like they’re being very cautious and overemphasizing that they are being respectful of the material.

None of this describes Planxty who appear to be legitimately great performers of traditional Irish music (I say, “appears to” only because there albums are somewhat expensive so I haven’t gotten to them yet, but after RS’s encouragement I look forward to doing so) and I want to urge you as strongly as possible to listen to the following song even though it’s nine minutes long.

You get another example of Christy Moore’s ability as a singer in “Little Musgrave” (youtube). It’s a familiar story, but he avoids having it feel formulaic. He’s invested in the story and in the motivations of the various characters. It seems like a simple thing to do, but it’s very difficult and most people don’t pull it off nearly as well as he does. It’s so common to hear ballads sung as if the story has always already happened, as if the song isn’t telling a story, it just exists as a version of a story, as if the interest is in the way in which it relates to all of the versions that are out there. He tells the story and tells it very well.

Youtube also has a more recent live version if you prefer. It’s similar to the version above, and you can see his face.

Apologies again for the lack of posting. I got really busy starting last July, and it’s only now starting to slow down (and I’m just starting to catch up). But, for my loyal readers, I do have something new to share. A new mix of county singer/songwriters, that I’m quite excited about. Extended thoughts below the fold but I’m definitely curious to know what people make of it. A lot of this music is new to me, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks listening to a bunch new music to work on this, and I’m happy with how it turned out:

Unconventional Country:
1: Walkin’ — Willie Nelson
2: Honkey Tonk Girl — Eilen Jewell (by Loretta Lynn)
3: Saint Anthony With The Broken Hands — Katy Moffatt
4: Hard On Equipment (tool for the job) — Corb Lund
5: West Texas Waltz — Butch Hancock
6: Burning The Toast For You — Suzy Bogguss (by April Barrows)
7: Wander — Paul Burch
8: Listen To The Radio — Kathy Mattea (by Nanci Griffith)
9: Anyhow, I Love You — Lyle Lovett (by Guy Clark)
10: Please — Mary Gauthier
11: Glasgow Girl — Rodney Crowell
12: Six Nights A Week — Peter Case (by Chris Gaffney)
13: Gimme A Ride To Heaven, Boy — Terry Allen
14: Mystery Train Part II — Steve Earle
15: Out In The Parking Lot — Guy Clark
16: Sittin’ Still — Andrew Jacob Holm
17: Boxcars — Joe Ely (by Butch Hancock)

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This is a surprisingly sad occasion. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that there were a couple of songs that I had been thinking about. One of those was a track off of Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 album I’m New Here. I didn’t post it at the time because, in all honestly, I had misplaced the CD, and figured I’d post it when I came across it, which I recently did. I was happy, because it was something I had been wanting to share.

So imagine my surprise, when I went to post, and discovered that Gil Scott-Heron died yesterday.

I’m not quite sure what to say. For me Gil Scott-Heron is a figure who seems to stand outside of time and the flow of popular music. He isn’t somebody about whom I could ever say that I followed his career, or even that I had a sense of the arc of career or life. I heard “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” when I was young enough that it wasn’t surprising to hear something new that didn’t sound like anything else. At the time I didn’t like the other songs of his I heard, which lacked the hooks of, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” but eventually I listened to this compilation extensively and came to appreciate how consistantly strong his work was, through a variety of moods and styles. “Small Talk at 125 at Lennox” is still a track that I’ll use as a stereo test track; it’s a surprisingly beautiful sound recording. Even as I got to know some of his work it felt both powerful, beautiful, and somehow remote in the sense that it never seemed to be in dialogue with other recordings. His influence is obvious, well-known, and immense, and his influences are also apparent but the power of his performances feels neither in debt to anybody else, nor transferable.

This New Yorker profile from last summer describes many of the difficulties in life and the respect that people had for him, and is very sad to read following the news of his death.

The song that had recently caught my ear was the title track, “I’m New Here” because I watched the video and was struck by how strongly it rooted the song in an idea of New York City (and how charismatic Gil Scott-Heron’s performance is). It evokes the folklore of the city and suggests that, only in New York, could Gil Scott-Heron, legend, live, be troubled, inspired, lonely, and be just one person in the crowd. If Gil Scott-Heron is somebody who obviously carried his own history with him the video suggests that New York contains so much history, and so many people, that he could still be “new here, once again.”

At the time I saw the video I thought it was a beautiful tribute to the folklore and idea of the urban center, and life affirming. At the moment I see the sadness in it as well. But I think it is, ultimately positive. From the New Yorker article:

“I’m New Here” is a reverent and intimate record, almost more field work than entertainment—a collage partly sung and partly talked, and made largely from fragments of Scott-Heron’s poetry, handled here in a voguish manner. It presents a notional version of Scott-Heron, which is Scott-Heron as hip-hop practitioner.

Scott-Heron recorded the songs and his poems, and Russell added the hip-hop tracks that accompany them. “This is Richard’s CD,” Scott-Heron says. “My only knowledge when I got to the studio was how he seemed to have wanted this for a long time. You’re in a position to have somebody do something that they really want to do, and it was not something that would hurt me or damage me—why not? All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”

“I’m New Here” is twenty-eight minutes long and has fifteen tracks, four of which are songs, one of which Scott-Heron wrote. Russell left the microphone on between takes and during discussions, and so he collected asides and observations, which he presents as interludes.

I want to try an experiment that I’ve been thinking about for a while. As I’ve mentioned, working on mixes is when when I do my most focused listening — in terms of paying close attention to both individual songs and what elements of the songs contribute to smooth or jagged transitions. I always end up learning something from constructing a mix. So I thought it could be interesting to walk through a mix song by song.

To start with, my most recent mix. I’ve put the entire mix up here (I burned it from a copy of the mix, so the artist information won’t be available, but otherwise the metadata should be accurate). I hope to post about each of the songs every couple of days, so it will probably take a 4-6 weeks to go through the entire mix (and I reserve the right to post on other topics during that time), but I think it will be interesting.

To quote what I said earlier about the mix

have a large set of childhood memories of hanging around in the living room while my parents played music with their friends. . . . I realize those memories are what define traditional music for me. When I’m listening to recordings of folk or acoustic music one of the things that I listen for is whether the performance and recording capture something of the spirit of making music for pleasure. It is, of course, a subjective category, and the musicians in my parents’ generation that I knew, growing up, represent a specific style of making music. Still, there are many recording in which I do feel that sense of music as a social activity shared among participants — rather than between a performer an an audience.

I would add a couple of notes to that, along with a copy the tracklist below the fold.
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In comments k-sky linked to a post of his in which he gave his best of the decade top 10 list. I would normally hesitate from doing something like this, because I’m far too aware of the fact that I don’t listen to a wide range of contemporary music. But reading his post convinced me that it’s an interesting exercise, even accounting for that fact, because it reveals something about my tastes and a decade is a long enough time frame that a top 10 list will still be consistently good albums even if drawn from a narrow cross section of music released in the decade.

The other thing that I realized, after working on the list, is that I haven’t blogged anything about most of these albums, mostly because they’re all better as albums than any one song excerpted from the album would be. So this should also serve as a placeholder to encourage me to figure out how best to write about the albums in more depth at some point.

1) Teddy Thompson — Separate Ways. One criteria for picking a top album of the decade is the number of copies that I have given away as gifts and, by this standard, Separate Ways is the clear leader. I completely fell in love with this album when I heard it. The opening half in particular is astoundingly good. Five of the first six songs are as good as anything. In particular the sequence of three songs, “I Wish It Was Over”, “Separate Ways”, and “Sorry To See Me Go” is a masterful sequence demonstrating the ways in which sadness and anger about the break-up of a relationship can cause one to act like an idiot, and to know that you’re acting stupid while you do it. The way it moves from anger of, “I Wish It Were Over” to the self-pity in “Sorry To See Me Go” makes clear both that character in the songs (presumably semi-autobiographical) has both been emotionally hit by a train and has behaved badly as a result. They make no excuse for the bad behavior but ask, perhaps, for understanding. That set of songs breaks my heart every time I listen to it.

2) Caetano Veloso — A Foreign Sound. I’m surprised to see that this album came out in 2004. It altered my tastes in music in a significant way, and that feels like it happened longer ago. A Foreign Sound was my first exposure to Caetano Veloso, immediately convinced me that he is great, and got to me to listen to a bunch of Brazilian music. I liked it better than most of the other Brazilian music that I listened to afterwords, but starting with A Foreign Sound and Caetano Veloso made absolutely clear the level of emotional intensity that exists behind the smooth surface of a lot of Brazilian pop music. It could easily be my top album of the decade.

3) Jurassic Five — Power In Numbers. This is another album that changed my listening habits. I got it as a gift from ben, who comments here, and it was an entry point into hip-hop for me. It isn’t a style of music that I particularly like, or am comfortable with, but Power In Numbers convinced me that I was missing out, and that I needed to get over my prejudices. Just a great album, front to back. One track from it lead off my politics mix, and I included two J5 tracks in my (somewhat bashful) hip hop mix.

4) Corb Lund — Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer. The first album that I got by Corb Lund who I think is absolutely great. He is, literally, the only musician for whom I will buy his next CD, site unseen, whenever it comes out. His two albums following Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer haven’t been quite as good, but both are quite solid and I still feel like I will buy whatever he wants to put out, and that’s saying something for me.

5) Corb Lund — Five Dollar Bill. Possibly a better album than Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer, it ranks lower partially because I got it and partially because the ability to put out a second great album says more about an artist than putting out one great album does.

6) Ken Stringfellow — Soft Commands. Another album that sent me on music buying and listening binge. This got me to listen to his previous solo album, the Posies last album, and the Big Star reunion album. Soft Commands suffers, perhaps, from being too restrained musically. The whole album is pretty, and very soft edged sonically, which can bury the emotions of the songs a little bit. But in the right mood it’s a completely successful album and gorgeous.

7) Willie Nelson — Live and Kickin’. This album is a really unlikely one to show up on this list. It’s a recording of a celebrity concert put on for Nelson’s 70th birthday. He performs with a different co-star on each track. I got it after getting interested in Willie Nelson after listening to this album and, despite using it as the basis for a long post, I was disappointed by it at first. I wanted more of Willie Nelson’s distinctive musical personality, and that’s somewhat in the background on most tracks. He’s sharing the stage and performing well but not taking over the mood of the songs. But the album has gradually won me over. It’s very good spirited, many of the performances are good, and and it’s just a fun album to listen to. I’ve listened to it a lot at work, and on days when I’m a little slow it’s a nice energy without feeling to pushy or aggressive.

8) Talib Kweli — Reflection Eternal. I cannot say enough good things about the song I discuss in this post. The rest of the album is good, but that song is amazing. It probably is my favorite single song from any album on this list.

9) Sinéad O’Connor — She Who Dwells . . .. Another album that I’ve given as a gift, the live concert is fantastic. At the time it was released it was going to be her final album and in the concert she sounds like she’s way more relaxed and comfortable with he music than she had be earlier and really enjoying the song and enjoying performing. I like the earlier, more tightly wound Sinead O’Connor performances, but I’m really glad to know that she got to the point at which she could do a concert like that one. Also, if it needs to be said, she has one of the most impressive voices in pop music. Nobody else can sing like her.

Update: 10) Joe Jackson — Summer In The City: Live in New York. I just noticed one album that I don’t want to forget. One of my favorite albums by one of my favorite musicians. The group is amazing, it’s astonishing how rich a sound they are able to get as just a trio. The two Joe Jackson CDs that I listen to most often are this and a greatest hits collection. No more edits after this, if I think of something else that I’ve forgotten I’ll put it in comments, but I thought Summer In The City deserved a place on the list.

11) Randy Newman — The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1. Re-recordings of older songs with just him on piano, this is the only album of his, other than Faust that inspires genuine love on my part. Sail Away it fantastic, but it has so many sharp edges, who would want to love that. I like it, I appreciate it, but it doesn’t make me want to let my guard down. But The Randy Newman Songbook is much more emotionally open and engaging. Consider, for example, the version of “Louisiana 1927″ on my politics mix.

I’m probably forgetting something, but that list ends up being a pretty good snapshot of what caught my attention over the decade.

I would be interested if anybody else wants to comment in the previous thread about the ways in which methods of acquiring music change one’s relationship to that music. In addition I wanted to respond to one thing that k-sky said in his comment:

Now I have too much music, and I enjoy music in general less. For me as well, listening is a more intimate experience when it’s solid and when I own it–or more precisely, when it’s scarce.

This got me thinking about the ways in which my music listening habits have changed over time. Much has changed just because of general life changes. I’m older, I’m busier, I have more going on in my life than I did when I was younger. One of the periods of my life in which I did the most music listening was also one that was lonely and unhappy for various reasons. Those sorts of life/age/music interactions are inevitably complex and difficult to isolate but there is one conscious decision that I made that has changed the way that I listen to music in important ways, and that is deciding to do mix CDs.

I may have said before, there wasn’t any culture of mixtapes/CDs among my friends in HS or college* so I was largely figuring out what I wanted to do with them on my own. Even though I don’t do very many, I spend a lot of time on the ones that I make, and they’ve become a key element of my music listening. On one hand it pulls me away from listening, in some ways, and makes my listening less pure of motive. I am, perhaps, me less willing to take an album on its own terms. When I get a new CD I’m a little bit more likely to skim it thinking about which songs stand out and might work well on an eventual mixtape. It also makes me more likely to get multiple CDs in the same genre at the same time, because I have the thought in the back of my head that I want to be able to abstract out the characteristics of the genre if I do a mix in that genre. On the other hand, these days, the times when I am thinking about making a mix are the times when I listen most carefully and think about music most intently. Its how I’ve learned to listen and isolate various elements of the recording at the same time and every time I make a mix I end up learning a lot about the music that I include.

As somebody who’s never played music, or studied music theory working on mixes has both provided an way to put creative energy into music and to think about the component elements of the music that I like.

I’ve been thinking about sharing more of my mixes on this blog, and this makes me think that I should. I’ve resisted in part because one of my concepts for the blog was to have each post include a link to some primary material (the song) that was short enough that the reader could easily listen to it while they read the post. But I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to resist posting and talking about mixes.

* note, I do occasionally find myself feeling jealous when I read about people for whom mixtapes were a method of social expression. But I suspect that had my friends in HS been interested in sharing mixes that, at the time, that would have just left me feeling excluded and like even more of an odd duck. Ah well . . .

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