Saturday, November 24, 2018

Best Albums of 2018

My top five albums of 2018 are, in this order:
1) Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids - An Angel Fell
2) Phish - Kasvot Växt í Rokk
3) Eamon O'Leary - All Souls
4) Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell - The Maid with the Flaxen Hair
5) Andrew Marlin - Buried in a Cape

The next five, in less particular of an order, are:
Alina Engibaryan - We Are
Khruangbin - Con Todo El Mundo
John Prine - The Tree of Forgiveness
Jimi Tenor - Order of Nothingness
Circles Around the Sun - Let It Wander

Below I have categorized these in more detail.

Best Singer-Songwriter Album - All Souls by Eamon O'Leary
Eamon O'Leary beat out one of the all-time greats (John Prine) to take the top slot in this category.  John Prine's The Tree of Forgiveness falls in the top ten overall, but All Souls probably ranks in the top three for me this year.

On All Souls Eamon has fine-tuned his brand of self-penned melancholy ballads and distilled it into a near perfect ten song package. There's a charming, seductive edge to these songs and still another quality that for some reason brings to mind the sounds of Wake of the Flood and From the Mars Hotel era Grateful Dead studio albums.

Best Acoustic Instrumental Album - Buried in a Cape by Andrew Marlin
I'm a sucker for CDs of all original fiddle tunes and Buried in a Cape is perhaps the best album I've ever heard in this category.  The primary influence seems to be vintage late 70's/early 80's Newgrass ala Tony Rice and Sam Bush.  But there's also stately compositions like the type found on Norman Blake's Natasha's Waltz, jazzy numbers that wouldn't sound out of place under the fingers of Jethro Burns or Tiny Moore, and crooked old-time fiddle tunes that seem as if they were plucked straight from the hills.  

Andrew Marlin is best known as a songwriter in the increasingly popular duo Mandolin Orange.  With the all-instrumental Buried in a Cape it's clear that he can add "formidable tune composer and instrumentalist" to his reputation.  It doesn't quite seem fair that a lyricist of Andrew's caliber should also be capable of writing such memorable fiddle tunes but here is the proof.

Best Electric Instrumental Album - Con Todo El Mundo by Khruangbin
This is the most competitive category for my musical taste.  I had several contenders in this style, including Five Star Motel by Gitkin, Spacesuit by Robert Walter's 20th Congress, Road to Knowhere by Tommy Guerrero, The Serpent's Mouth by Bacao Rhythm and Steel Band, and Let It Wander by Circles Around the Sun.

Khruangbin wins, however.  Con Todo El Mundo expands upon the retro thai funk they established on their full-length 2015 debut The Universe Smiles Upon You while still keeping that signature blend of guitar melody, counterpoint bass-lines, and "snap" drumming.  Whether you approach this music as chilled-out psychedelia or uptempo exotica, there's a dependable magnetism to Khruangbin's unique take on the art of music making.

Best Album Featuring Mary Halvorson or Bill Frisell - The Maid with the Flaxen Hair
It's true that I eat up almost everything Bill Frisell or Mary Halvorson puts out.  In 2018 the choices were many.  In Mary's case, among the releases she participated in, I returned frequently to Theirs by Thumbscrew.  In Bill's case it's hard to overlook his long-awaited solo studio album Music Is.  Nonetheless, crushing everything in its wake is the monumentally demure and completely unexpected collaboration between Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell called The Maid with the Flaxen Hair.

On this duo record, Halvorson and Frisell meet on middle ground by interpreting music associated with 1950's era guitarist Johnny Smith. What could have turned into a competitive battle of notes is actually the exact opposite. The two guitars blend in a delightfully cooperative way that is way more meditative and far less noisey, flashy or "out" than one might have expected. Hearing these innovative guitarists' immediately recognizable and iconic individual characteristics being played in tandem, as on the track Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair, is quite satisfying.

Most Unexpected Album - We Are by Alina Engibaryan
A random choice caused me to duck into 55 Bar late in the afternoon of Saturday, March 24, 2018.  The place was empty and it looked like a nice, quiet spot to have a Guinness before going to the Village Vanguard later that evening.  Little did I know that an hour later I'd be taking in one of the most memorable live sets of my life.  The bartender mentioned that the band starting in a few minutes was going to be good.  Soon the room was packed and the music had started.  Not being familiar with Snarky Puppy I had no idea that this ensemble included Michael League on bass and Chris Bullock on sax.  I just knew it sounded good, incredibly good, and that I really liked the songs by the keyboardist and vocalist, who turned out to be Alina Engibaryan.  She was featuring material from her brand new CD titled We Are.

We stayed for the entire first and set and would have stayed for more had it not been for other commitments. It was not until the next day that I started to look up who and what that was we had seen play.  Moments later I was listening to We Are on Spotify knowing that it would likely end up on my best of 2018 list.  And here it is!  Alina's music is a little more poppy than I'm used to, but having seen the organic live at 55 Bar version I know it's the real deal. And with that backing band (Michael League, bass; Chris Bullock, saxophone; Ross Pederson, drums), her jazz-informed songs are nothing less than ear candy.

Best Surprise Album by My Favorite Band - Kasvot Växt í Rokk by Phish
This is what space smells like.  Phish started the now common live band musical tradition of secretly covering an album on Halloween with The Beatles' White Album in 1994.  Subsequent years have included Remain In Light by The Talking Heads, Loaded by The Velvet Underground, and the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street.  Faceplant into rock.  Phish occasionally turns this tradition on its head by using the Halloween "cover" set as an opportunity to debut an album of all new original material.  Perception is spoon fed.  That's what happened for their middle set on 10/31/18 when they performed a 1981 record called í Rokk by the so-obscure-they-are-fictional Scandinavian band Kasvot Växt, even going so far as to plant back-dated album reviews, interviews and crate-digger articles on the internet as proof of its provenance.  I'm the glue in your magnet.

All of this proved to be a hoax of course....Kasvot Växt í Rokk was simply an excuse to inhabit the persona of a fake band of Phish's own creation as a means of debuting ten new original songs in a style that does and doesn't quite sound like the Phish we know and love, with lyrics that are however so Phishy that they could in fact be lost in translations from a mixture of Icelandic, Norwegian, and Vonlenska.  Say it to me S.A.N.T.O.S.  Even if these songs weren't so damn good and catchy Phish would still deserve an A for the artistic design work that went into this (stage setup, wardrobe, choreography, performance...).  We are come to outlive our brains.  But the songs are good - better with each listen.  I hope someone notices.

(I might as well create another category called "Best Improvised Music Played Live on Stage That Leaves Behind the Song Structure".  If so, this category would be created so that it could also recognize Phish based on moments during almost any show they played during their Summer or Fall 2018 tours.  There's a type of improvisation that Phish does which its fans have named Type II Jamming in which they leave the song structure behind and compose new, (usually) awesome sounding music on the spot while on stage in front of live audiences in excess of 10,000 peeps.  Phish is the best ever at this type of in the moment full-band live composition and that skill was on full display this year in a clean, melodic way that is unique to the last year or year and a half).

Best Party Album - Order of Nothingness by Jimi Tenor
Spotify has been helping me hone in on the sound I'm looking for and now it probably knows what I'm going to like better than I do. Jimi Tenor is one of those that popped up on my new release radar. I started with the songs My Mind Will Travel and Quantum Connection. Those made it to a summer playlist I put together and primed my taste for this album of full-on trippy and soulful Euro funk jazz.

My idea of a party album is for the party in your mind.  And I hope it never stops.  Order of Nothingness meets those needs.

Best Overall Album - An Angel Fell by Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids
If I were to make up a special category for this it might be "Best World Music Meets Spiritual Jazz CD" or "Best Album in the Sun Ra or Mulatu Astatke Lineage".  But those qualifiers are unnecessary since An Angel Fell can simply be labeled Best of the Year.  

Coming from a cosmic, here-and-now globalist perspective, the rhythms and melodies that are traversed over the course of this album's hour are so dead-on that it had no peer in 2018. The music is patient and freely spread out; the groove never dissipates, and the chant-like vocals are quite profound, not throwaway.  For me a highlight is the tones band member Sandra Poindexter is able to summon from her violin.  She takes an instrument - the fiddle - that doesn't always shine in a jazz setting and makes it growl.  With her at the controls the violin acts as a co-lead match to Ackamoor's sax.  For a band whose first album came out in 1972, An Angel Fell felt as fresh as anything I heard this year. 

Best EP (tie) - Cardamom Garden by Habibi and Down in the Basement by Mauskovic Dance Band
I think I found out about Mauskovic Dance Band by searching for bands that might be influenced by Liquid Liquid or Arthur Russell - both of which are apparent in their songs.  In the case of Habibi, the liking of them stems primarily from the allure of it being a kick-ass all female rock band.  I'm still waiting for that all female jamband that takes the music out there on twenty-minute rides like JRAD, by the way.  Back to the point, make a playlist of these two EPs back to back and you've got a killer 25 minutes ahead of you.  

Best Archival Compilation - Sun Ra Exotica
The folks at Modern Harmonic who put this three LP collection together really hit the nail on the head by calling attention to Sun Ra's connection to Exotica. The Saturnian prophet is not usually recognized as a member of or contributor to this style of music, but you can certainly notice an exotic thread there now.

Even those who don't know they know it, know the genre of Exotica when they hear it. Also called Lounge, Bachelor Pad Music, Tiki Music or Cocktail Music, Exotica was popular in the 1950's and 1960's as people opened themselves up to a post WWII sense of wordly culture and prosperity filtered through a clichéd idea of what Polynesian or Island music might sound like overlapped with the growing hi-fi stereo technology of the space age. All filtered through a white, middle-class, Disney-like, pre-Beatles perspective.

Who knows where Sun Ra was coming from when he made tracks like the ones found here, but he elevates the coolness of Exotica just by association.  It doesn't matter where you start or stop with this Sun Ra compilation - it's all good.  

Best Archival Live Release - The Grateful Dead Pacific Northwest '73 and '74
As someone who listened to a massive amount of Grateful Dead during my twenties, I do have to say that the GD's position as the nucleus of all my music listening and liking has shifted somewhat over the last 15 years.  This might explain why my jaw dropped and then remained there as I first listened to this music recorded between 1973 and 1974 in Oregon and Washington.  Those two years have always been favorites among Deadheads.  I've always thought of myself as more of a Brent Mydland era kind of guy (1979 to 1990) but this release puts that opinion to shame.

Maybe I had just forgotten how incredibly good - on every level - this post-Pigpen yet pre-hiatus time-period is, but these recordings make that explicitly clear.  With standout version after standout version, songs such as Bird Song, Eyes of the World, Brown Eyed Women, Row Jimmy, Playing in the Band and Dark Star demonstrate that there was some important historical music being made back then.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Tunes 76 and 77 - Helen's Bridge and Baked Zizi

I had a goal of writing just one tune the week I was in Asheville earlier this month.  On the drive down we listened to the Phish 10/31/18 Halloween set and during the third set in both Tweezer and a A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing there were cool melodies being played during the improvisational Type II jamming, and I made a mental note and even some had some phonetic lyrics to go with the sounds.

Once we got to Asheville I realized how close where we were staying was to Helen's Bridge - the most haunted place in Asheville according to local folk lore.  I knew I wanted to title this yet to be written tune Helen's Bridge.  The first full day we were there I worked on trying to write something, but I was a little hung over and nothing came of it.

After a good night's rest, I woke the 2nd morning before dawn and jotted down the following song titles to think of as inspiration: Down in the Willow Garden (Red Clay Ramblers), Cold Blows the Wind (Ween), All of These Dreams (Phish), Peggy-O (Grateful Dead), Been All Around This World (Grateful Dead), Blackberry Blossom (Bill Frisell version), Off To Sea Once More (Jerry Garcia), As I Went Out One Morning (Bob Dylan), Far Far From Me (John Prine), Moma Dance (Phish), Wayside/Back In Time (Gillian Welch), and Slow Train Through Georgia (Norman Blake).

Basically I wanted something sort of minor key sounding with an old-English ballad or Blue Ridge Mountain type feel.  Before I really even had a chance to use the above songs as inspiration I picked up my guitar and sung a melody to these made up words: Lost on Beaucatcher Mountain is a place called Helen's Bridge.  There I first felt the tapping and the dawning of the midge.  The notes on the guitar that matched this melody fell right into place.  Then I needed a B-part so with a different melody I thought of the following words:  Now that my car won't start, I'll just have to walk, over the mountain to, Helen's Bridge.  That became the 2nd part.

I don't know if I really needed a bridge, but I did want a third part, so I listened back to that Tweezer jam from 10/31/18 3rd set and added something like that as the "C" part.  So the structure of Helen's Bridge is AABBAABBCCCCCCAABB.  It's the only tune I have like that.  Or basically it's AABBAABB, then the C part as many times through as I want - usually six times through - before going back to AABB for one last time through.  Here it is.

Today is 11/17/18.  Last night I woke up at 4am with a melody in my head that was like a combo of the Haitian Folk Song Zizi Pan Pan and the Irish tune Rakes of Mallow.  I even saw in my head how I would write the first part out on paper.  Then I went back to sleep.  By 7am I was up and working on it.  The A-part came out similar sounding to my 4am revelation.  To construct the B-part I reminded myself of how the B-part to Rakes of Mallow actually goes and then tried to come up with a variation based on it but far from it.   And here's Baked Zizi.

Helen's Bridge is a more guitar-friendly melody, while Baked Zizi definitely feels better on tenor banjo than guitar.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

A Week In Asheville - bars, restaurants, hiking and more

Several times back in the early 2000's I would make the six-hour drive from Richmond, VA to Asheville, NC to see bands like Yonder Mountain String Band or Sound Tribe Sector Nine at the then newly opened Orange Peel in this progressive, hippie-friendly city in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  We would always stay at the now closed Days Inn on Patton Ave. (must have been cheap), and besides seeing those shows the extent of my exploration in Asheville mostly consisted of drinking at the Jack of the Wood pub across the street.  The last time I was there was in 2009 for Phish so having now returned for a week as a tourist in Fall 2018 I found a bustling city more cosmopolitan than the dreadlocks and patchwork oriented town I remembered, with a food scene, bar scene, and hiking opportunities that more than matched my current interests.

We tried out several restaurants in Asheville including some of the more buzzworthy or well regarded places, but the two restaurants I'd like to give a shout out to are Calypso and Rosetta's Kitchen.  

Calypso is a Caribbean restaurant and rum bar offering St. Lucian style dishes and island cocktails.  They might not be as popular as some of the nearby restaurants like Salsa's or Nine Mile, but for me Calypso had the best food of any place we ate at in Asheville.  And they make great rum drinks like painkillers and mai tais.
Rosetta's Kitchen was my other favorite restaurant in Asheville.  Plant may get more recognition as the go-to vegan/vegetarian restaurant in Asheville, but for my taste you can't beat the laid back feel of Rosetta's Buchi Bar, where they serve flights of Buchi Kombucha and even make kombucha cocktails.  Rosetta's signature dish is called Family Favorite - peanut butter baked organic tofu, sauteed kale, and smashed potatoes with gravy.  Better than any words can convey.  Yep, vegan comfort food is a real thing.

I guess I like fancy cocktails, at least while on vacation.  Topping my list of cocktail bars is the tenebrous Crow and Quill, a gothically decored speakeasy found behind an unmarked door on Lexington Avenue where the lighting is dim, the conversation is low, and the drinks are strong.  Inside you can try one of their 700+ liquors - top shelf - or one of their finely crafted mixed drinks.  Crow and Quill is a place to sip and look calm, cool and collected on the outside, pretending to read a book while getting drunk and weird on the inside.

My other favorite cocktail bar, or just "bar", was Little Jumbo which is located a few blocks north of downtown proper in an area at the edge of either North Asheville or Montford.  Anyway, Little Jumbo had more of an upscale neighborhood bar feel - less touristy than places in downtown.  Definitely worth the walk or Uber to get there.  This would probably be my local favorite if I lived nearby.  We went to Little Jumbo on two separate occasions.  Most fun for me was when each night's bartender, Kaitlyn or Lindsay, ventured off the menu to concoct special drinks worth trying.  
I'll also add The Social Lounge to this list.  We happened to notice this downtown staple on our last night in Asheville and the two drinks I got there (called Thalia and Wondermint) were tasty and refreshing.  

Actually, my cocktails rundown wouldn't be complete without recognizing my two favorite restaurants from above - Calypso and Rosetta's Kitchen - which each served up awesome and unique mixed drinks to go along with the delicious food.

I'm not as much into beer as I used to be, but craft beer is still trending hard in Asheville.  Without too much arm-twisting, I delved into some brewery sampling that included highlights at the Funkatorium (an unparalleled selection of sours), Dirty Jack's (home of Asheville's legendary Green Man Brewing), One World (cool downtown basement location with live music), and Burial (rocking the South Slope with its Tom Selleck meets the Grim Reaper ethos).

Evenings might be devoted to food and drink, but during the daytime in the Asheville area your hiking options are seemingly endless.  We were rained out a couple days, but still got some good walks in during our week there.  My favorite place was the North Carolina Arboretum at milepost 393 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Through an improvised route utilizing the Arboretum's Carolina Mountain Trail, Bent Creek Trail, Azalea Collection Trail and Wesley Branch Trail, among others, we were able to put together a fantastic two-hour hike that was adjacent to a flowing creek (Bent Creek) for much of the way.

When a cloudy day became a sunny one we took the opportunity to do the short but scenic Craggy Gardens hike to its 5,892 foot summit at Craggy Pinnacle, where the trailhead is located at an overlook just north of the Craggy Gardens visitor center on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Closer to Asheville there are many opportunities do hikes along the Mountains to Sea Trail.  A couple starting points include the trailheads at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center (MP 384) or the Folk Art Center (MP 382).  

Within the city itself there's a paved footpath/bike path/moms-with-strollers path called the French Broad River Greenway, which parallels the mighty French Broad River.  It was unclear to me how far this greenway stretches, as we only walked on it for about an hour one casual day starting near the dog park.  That said, I think it runs for several miles all the way from New Belgium Brewing to Hominy Creek.  This is a pleasant, low-key option for folks looking to stretch their legs but not have to venture too far.  
Asheville is a live music destination.  Like I said at the top of this post, I used to not think twice about driving six hours to see a band play there.  This time around I managed to encounter some good music without even seeking it out.  For example, who should be playing at Jack of the Wood as part of their weekly bluegrass "jam"?...a pick-up band consisting of guitarist Jon Stickley (of the Jon Stickley Trio), his fiddle playing cohort Lyndsay Pruett, and up and coming mandolinist Thomas Cassell.  They were doing a set of mostly David Grisman or Dawg-like tunes.
Although I failed to make it to Salvage Station for what would have surely been good times, we did pop into One World Brewing on the night of their Soul Jazz Jam and I was impressed by the musicianship of the musicians taking part in an open jam.  Another musical highlight was a jazz trio at Little Jumbo (they have live jazz there every Monday).    

One of my favorite things to do on vacation is to check out book stores.  Downtown Asheville has an outstanding indie bookstore called Malaprop's.  I enjoyed sampling their staff selections area where I picked up a short story collection called North American Lake Monsters by a local author named Nathan Ballingrud.  So far the stories in it are sort of like Raymond Carver meets Stephen King.
For used books, I liked Downtown Books and News.  There I randomly found a book I had not been expecting to find and got a kick out of just poking around its selection of second-hand books.  

When venturing into West Asheville, a somewhat disheveled yet left-leaning locals-only neighborhood across the French Broad River, a must stop is Firestorm Books and Coffee, where one could easily spend some time perusing the shelves.