Tag Archives: Tom Waits

BEST OF 2011

8 Jan

Best-of lists have come and gone. I’ll skip any reflection on the pros and cons of such things. It always feels a bit disingenuous for a critic to spend 300 words on his or her reservations about posting a best-of list as an intro to just that. This year, I’m embracing the idea.

As good as 2011 was for music—the debut record by NewVillager was enough for me—I’m already excited for 2012, unfortunately for reasons I can’t disclose here. Not yet. But change is coming, and it should be quite the experiment. Safety goggles are recommended.

For now, without the further ado, my favorite new music of 2011, and what I actually listened to the most.



1. NewVillager, NewVillager
A guaranteed way to ensure a life of gravitating toward the weird of the world is to grow up a theater kid, a creative-writing kid in small-town Kansas. Things were always happening to make me feel just a little outside the group. Once, I was pantsed during a rehearsal for The Wizard of Oz. I was the Tin Man. The pantser was the Wicked Witch of the West. I prayed that night that a house really would flatten her.

NewVillager appeals to that odd but—I like to think—imaginative kid in me. The one who played dress up, fought with swords, and wrote lengthy stories at the family computer in the basement. NewVillager is a duo: Ben Bromley and Ross Simonini. The latter is an editor at The Believer. Their eponymous (self-titled) debut was the album I had the hardest time resisting this year. It’s dancey but avoids the heavy, on-the-beat pulse that infects nearly every pop song on the radio (an odd residue of techno?). It’s optimistic musically but enigmatic lyrically.

I keep saying that it has all the glory of classic rock, but I have no idea if that’s the right way to put it. I do stand behind my assertion that they defy most cliches and dodge the tropes of genre. Certainly, their videos, which bring to life the complex mythologies behind the music, connect with my theatricality.

They also bring to mind the storytelling of Maurice Sendak. I imagine NewVillager to be as universally loved. In reality, though, I’m not so sure. I didn’t see their debut on anyone else’s Best of 2011 lists. Maybe they’re just fantastic in my odd little corner of the world, that esoteric sphere of reality where weirdness is a virtue.

Bon Iver

2. Bon Iver, Bon Iver
When I first heard “Skinny Love,” I thought Justin Vernon was black. His falsetto was so smooth. I imagined some East Coast crooner, half hipster and half nostalgic Casanova. Turns out the black guy was white, the East Coast was Wisconsin, and this recording artist had not a drop of hipster or Casanova blood in him—to my delight.

In interviews, Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, comes across as one of the most down-to-Earth guys in the business. His hair is legitimately ruffled, he curses in unfashionable ways, he classifies recording with Kanye as both weird and not that weird. He’s honest and true to his roots. When he and his band played his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin—where he still lives—they made the tickets only available at a box office in town, to ensure that fans from the surrounding cities and states didn’t flood the show and price out Eau Claire residents.

Bon Iver, the album, Vernon’s second full-length, astounds me. Repeated listens only reveal more depth, especially compared to For Emma, Forever Ago. I feel certain he picked up a few production techniques from Kanye, with whom he collaborated on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. With horn parts and rich effects, utilized perfectly, the album serves to open up new worlds for Bon Iver and other bands that a few years ago were pigeonholed as “neue folk” or “folk rock” or whatever critics called it.

“Perth” is my favorite song but not, probably, the best on the record. Its opening lines and then its heavy—relatively speaking—salvo of electric guitar and drums were enough to hook me after one listen. There’s a comfort in knowing that everyone else was hooked too. These days, it seems like people decide who to like based on the size of an artist’s fan base (the smaller the better)—and I fall into that on occasion—so it feels good to acknowledge something collectively, even when it leads to Grammy nominations. Bon Iver’s up for four, but I can happily report it hasn’t gone to his head. In an interview after the announcement, the interviewer had to explain to Vernon that if you’re nominated for a Grammy, you do, in fact, get to go.

Tom Waits

3. Tom Waits, Bad As Me
Swordfishtrombones changed my life. It answered questions I didn’t know I had and, later, connected musicians as disparate as Anais Mitchell and Kanye West. Its marimba line taught me that marimba could be cool. Not just cool, but haunting, mysterious, the perfect backdrop for a 20th-century bard. The instrument could somehow become the sound of Vietnam and psychopathy and storytelling.

Tom Waits has since become a more potent fascination for me than anyone, or anything else ever has. I read David Smay’s book about him and spent too many hours browsing the online stacks of the Tom Waits Library. There’s a reason to pay attention to this guy: I don’t know anyone else who’s inspired that level of historical archiving and independent cataloging. When news broke that Waits was releasing a studio album this year, a lot of people got excited. And yet, though it may have changed my life, Swordfishtrombones is not a very palatable record, and so I never expected to love Bad As Me as much as I do.

Its start is the opposite of slow, “Chicago” being a runaway tune led by banjo, piano, and saxophone and featuring a line I was destined to fall in love with: “Maybe things will be better in Chicago.” The songs on Bad As Me oscillate, like they do on Swordfishtrombones, between manic and maudlin, flip-flopping throughout the entire album. Where a Depression-era blues tune ends, a ballad begins. It takes some getting used to, but Bad As Me is worth the effort. Don’t go to the grave without hearing what Tom Waits has to say.


4. Feist, Metals
I’ve been a fan of Feist since our college newspaper reviewed Let It Die. I adored that album, “Mushaboom” summing up a certain mentality a lot of us had then. Then came The Reminder, and suddenly Feist was in Starbucks and on Sesame Street, but the music wasn’t any worse. It was better. We shouldn’t forget this. “The Water”—and the film it inspired—is beautiful. The remix album Open Season didn’t disappoint either, despite the fact that such endeavors usually do.

Metals, four years after her last album, is charged with a very human energy. It’s neither as smooth as Let It Die or as fun as The Reminder. Instead it feels more real. More lifelike. Though her music isn’t overtly complex, Feist does write songs that challenge our intuition. First, she often writes, at least on Metals, in a three-based time signature, as opposed to the usual four, (the ratio of left-handed people to right-handed people is probably an accurate comparison for the two forms’ relationship). She puts another twist on this though by playing a few of those three-songs in a way that feels like four. Instead of a languid, Waltz-like grace, “Graveyard” and “How Come You Never Go There” both appear to leave off a beat that should be there. In another words, if you’re swaying to the music, you’ll be out of sync every other bar.

This is just one reason Metals is an interesting album. “Caught a Long Wind” is another. Co-producer Valgeir Sigurðsson is yet another. If you listen to it openly, not hoping for another Reminder, I think you’ll see that Feist is maturing beautifully. I once thought I could make a case for why she’s the best musical artist to emerge in the past decade. I’m no longer quite so convinced, but my ambition tells you of the respect I have for her. And why I’ll eagerly be awaiting her next project.

Erik Friedlander

5. Erik Friedlander, Bonebridge
The pedal steel guitar has been unfairly relegated to country music. Granted, like any member of an outlaw gang, the instrument is guilty by association, and if we’re honest, we can admit that it’s committed its fair share of crimes. But in the right environment, the instrument can thrive. One such place is in the company of cellist Erik Friedlander and his jazz trio.

Bonebridge caught my attention with “Beaufain Street,” a song that brought to mind river boats, wheeling their way up the Mississippi from New Orleans to Chicago, a hub for gamblers and the men who would rob them. It’s music fit for carousing or for laying low above deck, watching the water turn to gold and then to nothing.

“Low Country Cupola,” “Tabatha,” “Hanky Panky.” They’re jazz-tune names. And Friedlander gets some good cello licks into each song. But the pedal steel steals the show and allows Bonebridge to inhabit a small space within Americana, a lonely corner I hope is more populated soon.


6. Bjork, Biophilia
There’s a reason that Björk, the Reykjavík-born queen of avant-garde pop, is a household name and also remains respected as an artist. It’s because she’s adamant that music is an art and be seen as such. Art isn’t always looking to be liked, and Björk’s music — characterized by a vivid and stubborn imagination since the beginning of her solo career in 1992 — is hardly snuggly. There’s always been a chill to it, an intensity we don’t always know what to do with. Biophilia is no exception.

The much-hyped release is as ambitious as anything before it. For weeks before, geeked-out music critics were drawn like moths to a porch light thanks to Biophilia‘s extra-musical elements, which included an iPad app, featuring graphic explorations of each track; live shows that used custom-made instruments like the Gravity Harp or twin musical Tesla coils; and a laser-laden video by French director and longtime Björk collaborator Michel Gondry. But it would be a shame if people forgot that beneath the chatter is an album. Biophilia may be unique because of its multiplatform release, but that’s not what makes it good.

Musically, it’s expansive, dramatic, and remarkably accessible. “Crystalline” is a pulsing, glowing sleeper that erupts into a hammering drill-’n’-bass salvo. “Virus” uses the hang masterfully, its warm metallic tones being a suitably alien backdrop for Björk’s iconic voice. These intrasong dynamics are great achievements, as is the subtle emphasis on melody. But the most important thing about Biophilia seems to be its subject matter. In the compositions, the lyrics, and—most noticeably—the album art and apps, the central theme is our physical universe. Björk embarks on a meditative musical exploration of nature, science, and technology, and we’re fortunate to be invited. There’s plenty to explore alongside her.

Other Lives

7. Other Lives, Tamer Animals
Maybe five years ago, my brother, my then-girlfriend (now-wife), and I went to see Spoon in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was a memorable show because that rare thing happened: the opening band stole the show.  They called themselves Kunek, and they understood music. They’d mastered a particularly beautiful realm of it, as well as the art of the performance. The frontman spent the set bent over his keyboard, hair in his face, giving every bit of himself to the show. I think all of us were in awe.

Later we would find out how to spell that name we’d only heard spoken, and  learn they were from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and buy their debut, Flight of the Flynns. And then they disappeared. That odd name never resurfaced. I assumed the band had, somehow, been swallowed by the vastness of the country’s center. Given itself to the soil, for nutrients. There was a part of me—the dramatic part—that mourned this loss. This year, however, I discovered that the band’s death had been faked. It had changed its name and was living and making music happily as Other Lives. It was living an other life.

Tamer Animals, the band’s 2011 release, is masterful, an evolution of the promise we’d seen in Fayetteville. It draws on folk music for its dreamy compositions but is hard to define in genre terminology. It’s easy to love, and we need music like that. It doesn’t necessarily push musical boundaries, doesn’t open new doors or lob projectiles at the ceiling or attempt to tunnel out under the walls, but what it does do is make wondrous the room contemporary music currently inhabits. If I was ranking these records by what I fell in love with the fastest, this album would be at the top.


8. WU LYF, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
Sometimes you learn something that forever affects the way you see something, or hear it, or think about it. Every time I listen to WU LYF (World Unite/Lucifer Youth Foundation) see an abandoned church in Ancoats, England. This is my imagination’s version of the church in which they recorded their debut Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, a place that was vital to its big, echoing sound.

The band is actually a group of Manchester kids—can’t find their ages, but they look somewhere between 16 and 20—who say they’ll retire at 25. Chances are that statement will later be filed alongside the disenchantment they’re already allegedly feeling about their choice of a name. Normally, when I learn a band is that young, I stop paying attention, figuring that if they’re still around in five years, they’ll a) be better musicians and b) have lost their impetuousness and sense of entitlement.

But WU LYF hooked me with Ellery Roberts’ garbled howls, which, though he is saying words, sound like the muted yells one might hear walking down the hall of a mental hospital. And yet they don’t convey pain, or anger, but more just a frustrated, almost animal attempt to communicate. This vocal styling lured me in and then set the hook; I couldn’t ignore these guys, despite their youth (and their impetuousness). Go Tell Fire is just the beginning for these guys, though a part of me hopes they do retire at 25. The other part hopes they make music as long as I’m alive.

The Roots

9. The Roots, Undun
I was a young drummer when I first puzzled at how to pronounce ?uestlove (answer: quest-love). His name was everywhere in the music magazines I read as a teenager. Yet it wasn’t until this fall that I knowingly heard The Roots, via this year’s Undun, a concept album that does for Philadelphia what The Wire did for Baltimore—portraying the dark and ruinous underworld of a drug trade that preys disproportionately on certain races and classes, especially their young.

Tracing the final hours of a fictional dealer named Redford Stephens, the story is unraveled backwards from the time of death. The music stands alone—the album doesn’t need its narrative any more than Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life needed its—but the words share an urgent message, and its the courage of these lyrics that earned Undun a spot on this list.

I’ll be honest and say that without a year spent in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, a place full of men like Redford Stephens, this record might not have packed the same punch. But then again, without that year, I wouldn’t have been much of a hip-hop fan either.


10. Cults, Cults
I didn’t know about Cults until this fall and didn’t hear “Abducted” possibly until it was included by Bob Boilen and his gang on All Songs Considered‘s year-end review, but the band’s debut quickly became one of my favorite albums of the year.

I don’t have a lot to say about it; I don’t know much about the group (it’s a guy and gal from Brooklyn, I think) and don’t know any interesting facts about the record (its sound is interesting but not revolutionary). I will say that if you’re in the mood for some infectious lo-fi pop, you’re in luck.

Also bonus points for some of the best album art of the year.

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Portions originally published by ALARM Press.

scratch where i been itchin’

30 Nov


Of the two recent songs that explicitly mention Mick Jagger, I’ll take this one.

buying umbrellas in the rain

3 Nov

Part of me can’t help but think there’s as big a difference between the bottom one percent and the middle class as is there is between the middle class and the top one percent.

I’m soaked. My hands are red from the wind and I can’t feel my fingers. The rain is a sheen on the black coats that surround me. Water dripping from briefcases and hat brims. It’s only been two days since Bad As Me officially came out, but I’ve been listening to it nonstop. It’s a perfect morning for it. Tom says that everybody knows umbrellas cost more in the rain. Today that feels truer than ever. Continue reading

bad as tom

1 Nov

The review I wrote of Tom Waits’ Bad As Me is up over at ALARM Press.

“Every harsh word has been employed to make sense of the ragged clatter that emerges from Waits’ throat. It’s as if his voice has always been 60 years old and his body only now caught up.”

A seeming lone wolf, Waits co-wrote and -produced Bad As Me with his wife, Kathleen

seasonal remedies

30 Oct

Nick Waterhouse

In a music slump? No reason to be. Here’s a list of eight great albums all released this fall. 

1. All Things Will Unwind, My Brightest Diamond
2. Bad As Me, Tom Waits
3. Biophilia, Bjork
4. Is That Clear EP, Nick Waterhouse
5. Metals, Feist
6. NewVillager, NewVillager
7. Nightlife EP, Phantogram
8. Wildlife, Sims

the many voices of tom waits

25 Oct

Tom Waits: "You're the same kind of bad as me."

Tom Waits is legend, larger than life. Few musicians are as cloaked in mythology. Yet his music has always been what music should be: comforting in places, jarring in others, pushing boundaries while always honoring the legacy of American songwriting. Bad As Me (ANTI-), Waits’s first studio album in seven years, is all of these things, continuing the direction Waits established with Closing Time in 1973 and hammered into the ground with Swordfishtrombones a decade later.  Continue reading

a thorough stomping

28 Sep

I read once that to write about Tom Waits, you need all the brown words you can think of. ‘Whiskey,’ ‘brunette,’ ‘earth,’ ‘scab,’ ‘horseshit.’ But it’s also true that you need your ‘g’ words. Grunt, growl, guttural, grit, gravel, gore, gas chamber. If you’re in the mood to have his ogre’s voice stomp you into the ground, check out his contribution to N.A.S.A.’s “Spacious Thoughts” (below).

I first heard the track back in 2009—Paste tossed it on the Sampler CD for their 50th issue—but for some reason it really only hooked me this week.

Waits is a fascinating character, in music and elsewhere—I don’t know anyone else who’s inspired this level of historical archiving and independent cataloging—and I can’t stress enough how much you need to check out Swordfishtrombones the album and Swordfishtrombones the book (by David Smay) from your local library. Don’t get just one. Unless you’re a Tom Waits scholar, you’ll be at least a little lost without the crutch of the other. Together, though, it’s just like following a map. And there’s a lot to unearth.

the ear or the eye?

27 Jun

David Smay on literature vs. music:

“Let me posit it this way. Fiction enters the eye and takes a circuitous route through the brain, which only gets to the heart after sustaining an almost dreamlike immersion. Whereas songs enter the ear and start jerking around with your heart or hips immediately, only rarely bothering to engage the brain. A poorly written story will just bore you, but a bad song inspires real ire and resentment that something so stupid is affecting you. It’s not so strange that cheap music is potent; that’s what cheap music does.”

“out of focus”

3 Jun

a monthly music column

Albums Acquired

Music Listened To
21, Adele
Away From Us, Record Low
Burn It Down, Sims
Ítrekun + Haglél, a new song, Mugison 
King of Limbs, Radiohead
Las Meridanzas, Alex Dupree and the Trapdoor Band
Magic, Sean Rowe
Salon des Amateurs
, Hauschka

Texas Radio Drift, James Reeves
Useless Creatures, Andrew Bird

Artists Seen
KLANG!!! @ The Hideout

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We love when the world is obscured. Towns swallowed in fog. Windows clouded in rain and smearing lights into golden dollops that run like pancake batter. On the train one morning, we sat, hunched. Heavy with rain. What we could see through the six-inch clearing at the bottom of the window was shrouded in gray. “You Woke Me Up!” was a sentiment we all shared, and I found myself wanting to be able to reach over, grab an auxiliary cable, and plug it into the train’s speaker system. Useless Creatures, in terms of genre, might be closer to classical than anything—it’s mostly violin—but this isn’t music for the orchestra hall. In fact, a train car felt right, this song in particular, with its gentle, rising progression, somber chords, and echoing portamenti, it’s pace not a trudge, but invariably steady, much like the speed at which we approached our destination.

Downtown, in the rain, and with the foreignness of “Carrion Suite” in my ears, could’ve been Ho Chi Minh. Maybe the song’s Eastern modes reminded me of “Shore Leave,” with those sparse Vietnamese plinks over Tom Waits’ minor blues. Or maybe the slender channels of cars that seemed to float amidst the Gaussian lights looked like what I imagine cities in Asia to be: busy but surreal. When it got to what I’d call the second movement, every time the doors opened it was as if Bird’s bouncing spiccato was the sound of the rain drops on the platform. Something about this music, especially in Chicago, where history is never far in the rearview, is of another age. Even though—like everything—it couldn’t have existed at any other time.

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It’s no surprise that music suspends belief, transports us back in time and across the Pacific Plate, but it is surprising when you realize how easily it does so. As if we’re so anxious to oblige it. A snippet of a folk tune sends us to the hills of Tennessee, the sun hot on our backs, wooden stools under us, whiskey in our hands. Is it possible that some music is powerful enough that not just generic belief but an entire belief system could be suspended? I was walking home on a warm evening, heading west on North Avenue listening to the last track on Las Meridanzas, when I decided it is.

For 3 minutes and 40 seconds, Alex Dupree lifts me off my feet. One question emerges, though I’ve never felt it before, with this song or any other: Do I believe in heaven? When was the last time I even asked myself? Is what I call faith anything more than a ruse I’m ever the victim of? The street is soil. A canopy overhead. Thrum thrum thrum thrum thrum thrum the incessant pounding beneath the ethereal hum, the guitar hitting the same few notes over and over and over step step step step step step thrum thrum thrum thrum thrum. Behind the liquor store there is a light / … neon red, she peered outside / all manner of things let go / Hold on, behind the lake frozen in snow / it’s the same giving life / the same giving light / black ice shinin’ / … into the pool of something that is unknown / Now life, not death but movement / oh God, you have not abandoned us / to the mouth of the Earth / we lay there still / come ice, come fire / we will grow until / you plant in our hearts / with rain, with high noon / with frost, with vines / with deep roots / Until all is overgrown.

Do I believe in heaven? The question is somehow in the song, even though it isn’t. Do I believe in any goodness, then, or now, or ever before? Do I believe in the replanting of Eden? That a broken world could be overthrown with new vines? Do I at least believe that life follows death? For a while, a few minutes, it doesn’t matter.

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The Record Low makes music that lets your eyes go out of focus. I’ve tried to explain it before, what I can make my eyes do—I’m convinced most people can too—but in part I don’t understand it myself. Do they drift apart, or move closer together? Is there any discernible physical change at all? How am I controlling it? It works best looking at lights. Street lights. Christmas lights. You can see them blur and splay out, five or six fuzzy planets static in long orbitals.

There’s this tunnel in Chicago, connecting the Blue Line to the Red Line, and if you’re down there, and stare straight ahead, and unfocus your eyes like this, it’s as if it goes on forever. And in that eternity, what should be playing is The Record Low. Tellingly, after some time, their music becomes hard to focus on as well, becomes the score to a film that’s on somewhere behind us. It’s beautiful, but it’s also subdued and spacey and almost more a void than something to fill it. The band couldn’t be more different live. The deafening shrieks and grunts of guitar effects were like watching mutilation on the big screen. You wanted to unfocus everything, get something into the periphery. There was too much sound, and it strained at your ears like a wild animal tearing through a fence. We only lasted a few songs. That was before I’d heard Away From Us, before “Immediate Family” became one of my favorite songs of last year, and made me often wonder how the same music could be presented so differently.

The inverse was true for Hauschka, who, with Samuli Kosminen—drummer for Icelandic electronic outfit múm—offered something of a magic show at Schuba’s not long ago. With a ‘prepared’ piano—bottle caps, paper clips, cloth, Tic Tacs, felt, foil, duct tape, cellophane, marbles, necklaces, all placed inside, on or between the piano’s strings—the sonic landscape was that of a 12-piece band, not a duo, and with sincerity, charm, and a gift at storytelling, Hauschka put on a show that was much more than a concert. At one point, in preparation for a song, he removed his preparations, and it was very similar to watching a magician pull impossibly large things out of a hat. The odd and innumerable objects just kept coming. It might’ve been the best part of the show. That, or when he subsequently poured an entire bag of ping-pong balls into the piano for a lively, totally random, visually engaging, and aptly named tune.

These sorts of theatrics are what’s missing on Salon des Amateurs. Its compositions are simply flat in comparison. I wonder if they sound that way to someone who hasn’t seen him live. It’s possible they don’t. But to me, after such a carnival of music, antics, and storytelling, the album is like a half-filled helium balloon. Hauschka is someone to appreciate in person.

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Are you ready for this year’s song of the summer? I hope so. I also hope you don’t care too much about novelty, because this, technically, was last summer’s song, released as the title track of BLK JKS’ 5-song EP ZOL! in June 2010. The song [which you can listen to right here] does one thing: it makes you feel like your cutting through the throngs outside the Green Point Stadium in Cape Town, avoiding the hooligans from Manchester and the vomit that patterns the pavement in splotches, in the summer heat, excited for what the rest of the world calls futbol, vuvuzelas blaring like wild animals. And it’s a testament to the fanfare and energy of the track that this scene is conjured without the following: “This new five-song ZOL! EP arrives around the same time of the World Cup’s arrival in the band’s Johannesburg hometown. … We’re told the celebratory, upbeat, sunny “ZOL!” is a song about soccer.”

That’s Brandon Stosuy of Stereogum reporting. BLK JKS apparently played at the opening celebration of the World Cup, sharing the stage in Soweto with Alicia Keys, Tinariwen, and the Black Eyed Peas. Listening to “ZOL!,” it’s clear that once again, globalization has wrought all sorts of musical experimentation. Here that looks like a young South African four-piece using a reggaeton backbeat behind its Afrikaans choruses. Fortunately, it’s not an incongruous blend; in fact, it’s the slickest track from them yet. Put this on, and you want to move. It’s infused with a sport-like energy and even though it’s got a beat, your body almost wants to run more than dance. It’s communal as well, with its choral call-and-response, and I’d wager there’s no one who hears this who doesn’t want to turn back time, buy a couple plane tickets—or join the hooligans in their rampage gratis—and head to the tip of the African continent, just for a few days where your body is somehow part of the hot soil and the churning crowds and the players out on the field, in some life-giving and mystical moment of unity.

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